Who’s the quarterback? That’s the big question, the important question, some might say the overriding question of this Kentucky football camp. When the Cats open the season Sept. 1 against visiting Central Michigan, who will be UK’s starting quarterback?
Answer: It might not matter. OK, it’ll matter. The quarterback always matters. This year there is a caveat, however. Given the returning talent, depth and experience for coordinator Eddie Gran, there is every reason to think the UK offense will be much improved over a year ago.
That wasn’t the case last season. After jumping up the national ladder from 89th nationally in total offense for Shannon Dawson’s lone season as UK’s OC to 61st in Gran’s first season, the Cats took a nosedive a year ago. No Boom Williams, no Jeff Badet, no Dorian Baker, no Jojo Kemp and no Cole Mosier was no fun. The Cats went from averaging 420.2 yards per game in 2016 to just 349.8 yards per game in 2017. That ranked 103rd nationally.
Now, the catalyst is gone. That would be quarterback Stephen Johnson, the former junior-college transfer who played through injuries — minor and major; known and unknown — to lead the Cats to their second consecutive bowl game. From a leadership standpoint, Johnson’s graduation left big shoes to fill.
Yet I can’t help thinking of a line used by Daniel Jeremiah of the NFL Network. On his “Move the Sticks” podcast with Bucky Brooks, the former Appalachian State quarterback divides signal-callers into two groups — trucks and trailers. A truck pulls the rest of the offense. A trailer can let the rest of the offense pull him.
In most cases, it’s good to have a truck. That’s especially true in the unforgiving SEC. Yet the 2018 Cats could be a special case. On paper, and on the basis of their strong showing in the final camp scrimmage, they might be fine with a trailer.
One reason: Benny Snell, the sledgehammer of a junior running back, the only Cat in UK history to rush for 1,000-or-more yards in consecutive seasons. After netting 1,333 yards in 2017, he could be the school’s all-time leading rusher by the time he departs.
He should also have backfield help. Sihiem King has three years under his belt. Sophomore A.J. Rose has built off his impressive spring game performance. “I trust those two guys more than I ever have,” Gran said Tuesday.
Up front, there are no obvious holes in the boat. Gran indicated this week that as many as nine offensive linemen could find themselves in the rotation. Last year, even with Nick Haynes battling diabetes, the o-line rarely went more than six deep.
At receiver, Baker is back after missing last season with a dislocated ankle. Lynn Bowden is also back. Unsure as a freshman in a new position, the sophomore from Ohio is confident he can now show what he can do. Tavin Richardson came on strong at the end of last season. Former walk-on David Bouvier is camp MVP, Gran proclaimed last week. And 5-foot-8 freshman Akeem Hayes has stood tall.
Meanwhile, senior tight end C.J. Conrad believes this has been his best camp. He shares the room with an able backup in junior Justin Rigg and a pair of freshmen in Keaton Upshaw and Brenden Bates, who both look the part.
None of this is to undervalue the quarterback. When he was coach at Mississippi State, Jackie Sherrill would say as an SEC team, you must have a quarterback. It doesn’t have to be a great quarterback, but it can’t be a bad quarterback. League defenses are too tough. They’ll terrorize a bad quarterback every time.
So is Kentucky’s quarterback Terry Wilson, the junior-college transfer? Or is it Gunnar Hoak, the redshirt sophomore with three years in the system? Last Saturday, head coach Mark Stoops indicated he hoped to name the opening-day starter early in game week. Tuesday, he hedged on that time line.
In the end, however, the name and date may not matter as much as this: The quarterback has plenty of help to carry the load.
Kentucky offense in Mark Stoops era