UK Football

If you’re expecting a UK QB controversy in 2017, you’ll be disappointed

Kentucky quarterback Stephen Johnson led the Wildcats to wins three times in 2016 in games in which the Cats were tied or behind in the fourth quarter.
Kentucky quarterback Stephen Johnson led the Wildcats to wins three times in 2016 in games in which the Cats were tied or behind in the fourth quarter. Herald-Leader file photo

The first question to Mark Stoops at the Kentucky football coach’s Monday news conference previewing Wildcats spring practice was about the status of injured UK quarterback Drew Barker.

Barker started Kentucky’s first three games in 2016 before a back injury sidelined him for the remainder of the season. He will try to return in 2017 after undergoing surgery on his back last November.

“Getting better, getting better,” Stoops reported of Barker’s health. “Not at full strength, hasn’t been able to go yet.”

In Barker’s absence last season, of course, Stephen Johnson, a little-known junior-college transfer, assumed the UK quarterback position.

He didn’t always look stylish while doing it, but Johnson led the Wildcats to wins in seven of the 11 games in which he took the preponderance of the snaps. The 33-18 loss by UK (7-6) to Georgia Tech in the TaxSlayer Bowl was Kentucky’s first postseason appearance since the 2010 season.

Given that, it fascinates me how many UK football fans I meet who seem to think there will be a roaring QB battle in Lexington this fall.

Barring injury, it’s hard for me to imagine a realistic scenario in which Johnson will not be Kentucky’s starter at QB when the Wildcats kick off the 2017 season Sept. 2 at Southern Mississippi.

With Barker having made only five career starts, the Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., product is now the most experienced QB on the Kentucky roster.

“I think the nice thing about Stephen is he’s played an awful lot of football,” Stoops said. “We haven’t had that continuity for a while. I think the players feel some comfort in that, and I think you see the confidence with Stephen.”

Last season, Johnson excelled in two areas. He produced under game-deciding pressure, having three times led the Wildcats to victory in games in which they trailed or were tied in the fourth period.

He also threw the deep post pattern more consistently than I’ve ever seen from a UK quarterback. Johnson had seven touchdown passes of 40 yards or more in 2016. He had two other accurately thrown bombs on deep posts that would have gone for TDs but were dropped.

The 6-foot-2, 185-pound Johnson also had two primary areas where he struggled. One was fumbling. Sensing vulnerability, defenders routinely tried to strip the ball from the thin QB’s hands. They had success doing so, too, as Alabama, Mississippi State and Georgia Tech all returned Johnson fumbles for touchdowns.

Stoops listed “protecting the football, first and foremost,” as the area where Johnson needs to show improvement. “I think that’s something we need to emphasize, and we talked about it. … (Johnson) takes everything personal. He works at it, and he’s worked extremely hard to try to gain some weight, to gain some strength.”

Johnson’s second area that needed shoring up in 2016 was being more consistent in the intermediate passing game.

Even though Johnson hurt Louisville with the deep ball in Kentucky’s 41-38 upset of the No. 11 Cardinals last November, what separated the UK quarterback in that game from others before him was that he was better able to complete drive-extending intermediate passes at critical times.

“We all know, that’s an area where we need to improve,” Stoops said.

As for Barker, Stoops says he doesn’t expect the Conner High School product to be cleared to go in 11-on-11 contact football during the spring. The UK coach said the hope is that the 6-3, 222-pound junior will be able to increase his participation in the latter part of spring practice.

“The plan is, after spring break, get him going more,” Stoops said. “Maybe some seven-on-seven (drills), or half-line or one-on-ones. He’s done some of that, but they’re limiting how far he can throw the football right now. We’ll be very anxious to see Drew out there.”

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