UK Football

Johnson will be Kentucky’s starting QB in the spring, but expect a heated competition

Kentucky quarterbacks Gunnar Hoak (12), Luke Wright (14), Drew Barker (7) and Stephen Johnson (15) will be joined in spring practice by early-enrolling freshmen Danny Clark and Walker Wood.
Kentucky quarterbacks Gunnar Hoak (12), Luke Wright (14), Drew Barker (7) and Stephen Johnson (15) will be joined in spring practice by early-enrolling freshmen Danny Clark and Walker Wood. mcornelison@herald-leader.com

Kentucky has gone from having few options at quarterback a season ago to having a wealth of talent at that position.

It could make for an interesting spring, the Cats’ offensive coaches said on Wednesday after UK signed two more solid signal callers in Danny Clark and Walker Wood on national signing day.

“Stephen has a leg up obviously; he’s won seven games for us this year,” co-offensive coordinator Darin Hinshaw said of Stephen Johnson, who took over the quarterback duties after starter Drew Barker suffered a season-ending back injury early in the third game of 2016. “He’s going to have a leg up over everybody.”

Johnson helped the Cats win seven of their final 11 games and led UK to its first bowl since 2010.

Kentucky has plenty of other options, including Barker, who has shown steady improvement since his back surgery in November. The junior has been able to throw without pain, Hinshaw said.

“Is he able to play right now? No,” Hinshaw said. “He’s getting better and better. He’s now throwing, which is a good sign. He’s not having pain in his back throwing and different things like that.

“He has a little spark in his eye right now that you can see he’s excited about trying to get back into it because he worked so hard to get to where he was last year.”

And then there’s Gunnar Hoak, who was redshirted last season, but would have played had Johnson gotten injured. The freshman impressed coaches with his improvement during the season.

Add Clark and Wood to that group — although Wood will miss the spring while working through a knee injury — as well as two other walk-on QB options.

“They’re going to compete like crazy with those guys,” Hinshaw said of the other quarterbacks.

Johnson is the starter going into the spring, co-offensive coordinator Eddie Gran said Wednesday, but beyond that, he didn’t offer much more.

“I haven’t seen Danny Clark throw one ball,” he said. “I haven’t seen Drew Barker throw one ball (since surgery). So Stephen Johnson is our starting quarterback right now and we’re getting ready for the spring.

“Now, I think there’s going to be a heck of a competion. And I can’t wait. You’ve got Gunnar Hoak that’s not going to lay back. You’ve got Luke Wright that’s not going to lay back. Now, can we get them all reps and do all that? No. But it’ll all work out. Always does. Competition is great for the soul and the mind.”

Divvying up defensive duties

It doesn’t sound like all of the wrinkles have been smoothed out when it comes to how Kentucky’s defensive duties will be managed with the departure of former coordinator D.J. Eliot and the promotion of Matt House to the job this week.

Two games into last season, head coach Mark Stoops took over the play-calling duties from Eliot.

Will that still be part of Stoops’ job description come September? “I’ll do what’s necessary. We’ll see what happens.”

The head coach, who said he enjoyed calling plays this season, will continue to be heavily involved, but he didn’t offer many specifics.

“I have a lot of confidence in Matt, and our defensive staff,” Stoops said of House. “I’ll be heavily involved, just because I’m comfortable in doing that now, just where the program’s at, and a lot of the fund raising, a lot of the things are done, and our roots are planted, and I feel good and I feel comfortable in the role. So I’ll definitely continue to be as active as I can.”

For his part, House said he and Stoops “hadn’t gotten that in-depth” with the job description. House has previous experience calling plays at both Pittsburgh and Florida International.

“At the end of the day, I see myself as the leader of the defense and I see him obviously, he’s got a wealth of experience, both here at UK and before,” House said. “So I see it being a team effort in a lot of ways, too.”

A new special teams coach/outside linebackers coach will be hired “relatively soon,” Stoops said.

Secondary coach Steve Clinkscale said he expects the transition from Eliot to House to be relatively easy on the players and the coaches alike.

“He’s a hard worker,” Clinkscale said of House. “He’s going to be one of the first ones in and one of the last guys to leave. He’s a family man. I believe in him. I believe in his philosophy and everything he’s going to bring to the table.”

More on Barker

Because of the nature of his injury, there is no timetable for Barker’s full return, Hinshaw said. So it’s unclear how much he’ll be able to compete in the spring.

“We don’t put a date on it,” Hinshaw continued. “We don’t know; the doctors don’t know; no one knows exactly when he’s going to be able to come back to be at full strength.

“The one thing we don’t want to do is push him, hurts it again and he’s done. So we’ve got to be delicate with the situation and again, Drew’s doing a very good job of working. He’s a leader in that room and he’s been a leader off the field.”

Jennifer Smith: 859-231-3241, @jenheraldleader

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