UK Football

Depth at quarterback gives Kentucky football plenty of options

The message is simple: “You’re one snap away.”

Drew Barker knows it. Stephen Johnson knows it.

The Kentucky quarterbacks learned that the old cliché can play out in real time — in real life — last season when Barker was comfortably nestled into the starting spot and Johnson was trying to find his way onto the field.

Johnson figured out quickly that quarterbacks coach Darin Hinshaw wasn’t kidding with his “one snap away” talk after Barker went down with what turned out to be a season-ending back injury and the junior college transfer had to take over the starting spot.

Johnson had a strong first season, leading Kentucky to wins in seven of its last 10 games and the Cats’ first trip to a bowl game since 2010 while Barker tried to heal up from back surgery.

Now Barker is back to 100 percent. Johnson is the starting quarterback for the start of camp and redshirt freshman Gunnar Hoak impressed in the spring game a few months ago.

Options abound for Kentucky at a position whose depth was one massive question mark at this time a year ago.

“It’s very nice to have all three of those guys and more at full strength and healthy and be able to compete,” Coach Mark Stoops said on Sunday at Media Day, which opened Kentucky’s preseason training camp.

“It’s really nice, because you know how physical this game is, you know what our league is all about, and to have some options there and not be holding your breath every time. … With some depth it, hopefully, will free us up a tad.”

Kentucky now has options with two former starters back, including Barker, who didn’t sound like a player who had back surgery in November after a promising start to last season.

The 6-foot-3 junior from Burlington realized that he was going to be OK and that he was going to fight for the starting spot in early June when strength and conditioning coaches hooked him up to the sleds.

“I really hadn’t had anything pulling against me or anything, so I was kind of skeptical about it,” he said. “They had a pretty good amount of weight on there and I did it and had no problem.

“That was probably the moment it clicked, real early in the summer workouts. I was like, ‘OK, I feel really good.’”

Friends and Cats fans started to realize that the quarterback was back when they saw him on the golf course this summer. A lot.

“I wouldn’t be out here if it wasn’t feeling good,” he told people who inquired, noting that golf isn’t exactly for the faint of back.

The only thing the former starter hasn’t done is take a hit, something that isn’t likely to happen until he gets in a game.

“I feel comfortable that I’ll be fine when that moment comes,” he added quickly.

Barker is taking his place on the depth chart — at No. 2 this preseason — in stride.

“Just because Stephen’s the No. 1 right now doesn’t mean you have to go out there and do more than you need to do, just go out there and play your game,” he said.

There is a reason that Barker was the starter a year ago. He’s a talented player who can make Kentucky better, offensive coordinator Eddie Gran said.

“He was the starting quarterback here,” Gran said of his message to Barker. “So, that’s hard to do. He got hurt and he came back and he got cleared. Compete. Compete for a starting position. I think that’s the best way to say it. There’s no other way. … The other thing is always be ready. You never know.”

Johnson welcomes the back and forth.

“Drew makes it a great competition every day,” said Johnson, who threw for 2,037 yards and 13 touchdowns while running for 327 yards and three more scores. “He’s someone that keeps you on your toes. I’m open to it. It only makes us better.”

Hinshaw and Gran don’t care who the starting quarterback is at the start of camp. They’re not even consumed with who the starting quarterback will be on Sept. 2 at Southern Miss.

They just want to make sure there are multiple players ready when their snap comes.

“Bottom line is you’ve got to prepare yourself to win,” Hinshaw said of the QBs. “So just because you’re No. 1 right now or No. 2, it doesn’t matter. You’ve got to be prepared to go win for Kentucky. Drew Barker better be prepared to win because he’s going to play at some point. Stephen’s going to play whether it’s the first snap or not, and Gunnar Hoak better get ready to play, too.”

Jennifer Smith: 859-231-3241, @jenheraldleader

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