Drew Barker tried hard to shake it off.
That monster sack on the first play of his first road start at Florida, Barker tried to tell himself it wouldn’t throw him off the rest of the afternoon.
Even after the 45-7 blowout at The Swamp, the Kentucky quarterback said it wasn’t a big deal.
“A little disappointing or whatever but it didn’t affect the rest of the game,” he said.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Lexington Herald-Leader
But the sophomore never quite looked the same after it. Against the Gators, the quarterback connected on more passes (three) to opposing players than he did to his own teammates (two).
Kentucky quarterbacks coach Darin Hinshaw thought his signal caller was rattled.
“All camp you don’t get hit, especially that hard that fast,” Hinshaw said of the shot from Florida’s Alex Anzalone. “As a sophomore quarterback, it shook him up a little bit. To say it didn’t, I’d be lying to you.”
A few days later with more time and more clarity thanks to film sessions, Barker admitted that that first play might have set a bad tone for the rest of the day offensively.
“I probably thought they were going to get to me quicker than they really were the rest of the game just ’cause I got blindsided like that and was maybe looking around a little too much,” he conceded about the play, calling it a “great learning point.”
It was an education for Kentucky’s new play callers, too.
Offensive coordinator Eddie Gran and Hinshaw said they need to put Barker in more comfortable positions, especially early in the game.
An empty backfield with a call that moved the protection to the left and allowed a linebacker on the right side to get to Barker nearly untouched was a mistake, Gran said.
“I started out the game and get him hit right in the chin,” Gran said after the loss. “So I’m not putting that on him; I’m putting that on me.”
I probably thought they were going to get to me quicker than they really were the rest of the game just ’cause I got blindsided like that and was maybe looking around a little too much.
Kentucky, which hasn’t yet put together a drive longer than nine plays, has to find a way to get its quarterback in a rhythm.
“We can’t be up and down and we’ve got to be able to sustain drives,” Gran said. “We gotta be better on third down. That’s the bottom line. We’ve gotta find better throws for him, we got to get open, we got to protect, and again, it goes back to the execution of the offense and me putting him in a better situation.”
A better situation not just physically, but mentally, too.
They want to get Barker’s confidence back to where it was in the opener against Southern Miss.
In that first half versus the Golden Eagles, Barker completed 58 percent of his passes and had four scores.
In high school, he had a stinker of a game like he did at Florida. As a sophomore at Conner in 2011, Barker’s Cougars were throttled 42-14 by Covington Catholic in the regular-season finale.
Barker went back to work, and in the next game, a playoff game against East Jessamine, the quarterback completed 14 of 23 passes for 229 yards and two touchdowns. He also had 15 carries for 66 yards and another score in the 28-7 victory.
And while this next game against New Mexico State isn’t a playoff game like in high school, Barker said he has had no trouble refocusing and going back to work for the Aggies, the nation’s 35th-best passing defense.
“It’s only the third game of the season so we just gotta look at it as a great opportunity to have our first win,” Barker said.
Drew Barker’s 2016 passing stats: 34 attempts 17 completions 333 yards 4 touchdowns 4 interceptions 2 fumbles lost
There’s a fine line between instructing and killing confidence at this point, Hinshaw said.
“Sometimes they can get into a situation where, ‘Oh my gosh, what’s happening to me?’” Hinshaw said. “I’ve got to be careful not to be too hard on (Barker), but also build him up, but also say, ‘No, this is unacceptable, we can’t do this.’ I think he understands that and he learned.”
Hinshaw recalls making some of the same rookie-type mistakes that Barker has made so far.
“The whole key is what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, but you’ve got to learn from it and we can’t make those mistakes anymore,” Hinshaw said.
Those miscues have been killers for Kentucky. In the past six quarters, the Cats have turned the ball over seven times, all at the quarterback position, including six by Barker.
The coaches dissected each of the interceptions. Some were good plays by the defender, like a one-handed grab by a Florida defender and the screen play where another defender pushed through two blocks to make the snag.
But some have come from Barker trying to force plays, too.
“We can’t do that anymore. That’s the bottom line,” Hinshaw said of the miscues. “That’s not going to help our team win. So, we’ve been really focused that we cannot turn the football over.”
New Mexico State at Kentucky
4 p.m. Saturday (SEC Network alternate channel)