UK Football

Kentucky’s clarity at quarterback rare in SEC this preseason

Drew Barker is one of the few Southeastern Conference quarterbacks who knows he’s entering fall camp with the starting job in hand.
Drew Barker is one of the few Southeastern Conference quarterbacks who knows he’s entering fall camp with the starting job in hand.

It’s no exaggeration to say the quarterback situation in the Southeastern Conference is up in the air.

Of the league’s top four passers last season, all but one are gone.

The annual Media Days event, a place where quarterbacks hold court with hundreds of media on a yearly basis, has just three signal callers on the schedule this week. There are more tight ends (five) than quarterbacks making appearances this year.

“I know a lot of coaches in the SEC are going through this,” new Georgia Coach Kirby Smart said of the quarterback controversies plaguing so many teams. “It’s getting to be more and more of a trend it seems to me. … It seems to be there’s more question marks every time we have this event.”

More than half of the league’s teams have yet to name a starting quarterback going into fall camp and schools are scrambling to replace big yardage guys like Dak Prescott (Mississippi State), Brandon Allen (Arkansas) and Jake Coker (Alabama). Many of the quarterback starters who have been named, like Kentucky’s Drew Barker, have limited experience.

In the first two days of Media Days, there were loads of coaches discussing their options.

Defending SEC East champion Florida has four players vying for the starting spot, including two transfers in Luke Del Rio and Austin Appleby competing with two freshmen in Kyle Trask and Feleipe Franks.

Gators Coach Jim McElwain tried to put a positive spin on the competition.

“Here’s the good thing,” he said Monday. “We’ve really got good arm talent. I’m excited about being able to stretch the field vertically. Should be a lot of fun.”

He wasn’t the only one trying to turn a competition into a bonus.

“We have three guys that we feel like can execute our offense,” Auburn Coach Gus Malzahn opened the week’s festivities saying. “The challenge we have is defining and figuring out who that guy is that gives us the best chance to win games.”

There are just as many question marks at Mississippi State, which had relied on quarterback Dak Prescott for years to run the office. Now Dan Mullen has to find his new leader on offense.

“We had four guys competing for the job in spring ball,” Mullen said. “All of them were still in contention for the job. No one really separated themselves to pull away from one of the other four at that position.”

Similar things were being said by coaches across the league.

But for the first time in a long time, Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops will not be discussing the merits of one quarterback over another.

After the spring game in April, Stoops announced that Barker will lead the Cats’ offense. It’s the first time since 2011 — when Morgan Newton was named the starter — that UK has a starting quarterback going into fall camp.

Barker, who played in five games last season completing 35 of his 70 passes for 364 yards and a touchdown, has had a whole summer to get used to being the offensive leader.

That could be a big benefit to Kentucky this summer and fall.

“He’s building a relationship with the receivers, building a relationship with the offensive line, building a relationship with the running backs,” UK quarterbacks coach Darin Hinshaw said of the import of a starter being named after the spring game.

A month ago, Stoops talked about Barker’s “command of his group,” including scheduling early-morning workouts.

“He’s a guy that does have command of the players, of the receivers and getting them together and getting on the same page and throwing,” Stoops said of the sophomore.

One of the key components that seemed to be missing for Kentucky each of the past two seasons was a playmaker at the end of games.

Former Cats Coach Rich Brooks said as much in June at the Governor’s Cup luncheon in Frankfort.

“Kentucky has a lot of good people in place that they need to have to win, but the critical thing is in the clutch time they don’t have anybody stepping up making plays, specifically at the quarterback position,” he said. “I hope Barker will be ready to do that because that’s what they need.

“If you can’t make clutch plays in the fourth quarter, it’s hard to win in this league.”

Just ask Mullen, who has been grooming some of the league’s top quarterbacks for more than a decade. He called playing quarterback one of the hardest positions on the field “just because of how much goes into it.

“All of the extra time, all of the things they have to know,” he said. “You think the time you break the huddle or you call that play, all of the different things you have to process within a very, very short period of time before the ball is snapped and all of the things you have to process in about 1.2 seconds after the ball is snapped, the preparation, the processing of information and what you have to do at that position makes it, I think, the hardest position on the field.”

Jennifer Smith: 859-231-3241, @jenheraldleader

SEC Media Days

When: Through Thursday.

Where: Hoover, Ala.

Kentucky: UK Coach Mark Stoops and players Jojo Kemp, Courtney Love and Jon Toth speak Wednesday.

Updates: Follow Jennifer Smith on Twitter @jenheraldleader.