Even before he’d thrown a football in a Kentucky jersey, Drew Barker was the central figure in a Super Bowl ad asking “Why Not?” about the future of Wildcats football.
The redshirt freshman helped recruit and preserve the 2014 signing class, among the most highly rated in school history.
Even before Barker arrived on campus a semester early for classes, Kentucky coaches were praising him.
On National Signing Day in 2014, Mark Stoops called Barker’s leadership “off the chart.
“He just has that ability to be a leader, and he wanted other great players around him,” the head coach continued.
Now Kentucky and Stoops are looking for Barker to lead them to their first victory since Oct. 3.
With all of the hype, it took Barker a little extra time to be named a starter than he initially imagined, but coaches brought him in on Sunday night to tell him it was his time.
“I didn’t think it would take this long, but I was just patient, just put my nose to the grindstone, just kept working,” Barker said.
Now that you’re the starter, everybody kind of looks at you in a different way, so you definitely have to increase the leadership role. I’m definitely doing that.
When UK faces Charlotte at Commonwealth Stadium this weekend, Barker will try to go from the architect of the 2014 signing class to the architect of Kentucky’s revitalization.
“Looking for more of just a spark really,” offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson said. “We’ve got to inject some confidence back into the group.”
The intangibles and leadership qualities that Barker showed during the recruiting process haven’t always been able to shine through in his role as backup quarterback to Patrick Towles this season.
But Barker, who has played in three games, completing 13 of 19 pass attempts with one touchdown and two interceptions, said he did his best in a limited role.
“You want to get on guys and certain things, but you’re not really a starter,” he explained Tuesday. “The starter’s really looked at as the leader of the team. So I would try to get everybody rallied and stuff on the sidelines as much as I could.
“But now that you’re the starter, everybody kind of looks at you in a different way, so you definitely have to increase the leadership role. I’m definitely doing that.”
There will be some adjustments for Barker on Saturday when he runs out onto the field for the first snaps versus Charlotte, but Dawson seemed confident that the three-year starter at Conner High School in northern Kentucky is ready.
6,264 yards, 62 TDsDrew Barker’s career totals in high school
“He was calm Saturday when he got in there,” Dawson said of Barker, who completed a career-long 42-yard pass on his first throw out of the huddle last weekend. “He’s a calm kid. I’m not worried at all by his demeanor. I’m really not.”
Leading Kentucky on a long scoring drive at Vanderbilt gave Barker a boost, too.
“That’s basically what they were telling me all week, that they were just hoping I could come in there and provide a spark for the team and I was just happy on the first play call they gave me a chance to throw it deep,” Barker said.
He knew that Vanderbilt’s defense had changed its play to a blitz and that he needed to get rid of it quick.
“I’m gonna get hit,” he said. “So I just tried to hang in there and let Jeff make the play and he did so I feel like that was definitely a big confidence booster for me as well as the team.”
Coaches have lauded Barker’s quick decision-making and quick throw, but that got him into a little bit of trouble against Vanderbilt when he threw a pass too quickly and right into the hands of a Commodores defender, who ran it into the UK end zone.
It will all be part of an adjustment for the 6-foot-3, 225-pound Barker, who completed 65.9 percent of his passes for 6,264 yards and 62 touchdowns in high school while running for 3,931 yards and 51 scores.
While he was a four-star prospect rated the No. 5 quarterback in the nation by Rivals.com out of high school, there has been plenty for Barker to learn in college.
There were off-the-field issues like an air-gun incident with several teammates that shut down south campus. Then there was the bar fight in Richmond, and the public punch he took from an Eastern Kentucky player.
He has matured both off the field and on, his coaches said.
Stoops can see it in Barker’s preparation and his demeanor. The coach hopes Cats fans can see it on Saturday at Commonwealth Stadium.
“He’s worked hard,” Stoops said. “He looks comfortable at practice. He’s still learning and growing just like the whole team.”
Charlotte at Kentucky
7:30 p.m. (SEC Network)