Mark Story

With Stephen Johnson hurting, can UK win with Drew Barker if it has to?

In sparse use this season as Stephen Johnson’s backup at quarterback, Kentucky junior QB Drew Barker is 2-of-4 passing for 33 yards.
In sparse use this season as Stephen Johnson’s backup at quarterback, Kentucky junior QB Drew Barker is 2-of-4 passing for 33 yards. aslitz@herald-leader.com

The remarkable rise of Stephen Johnson as Kentucky Wildcats football folk hero had another signature moment Saturday night.

As the Wildcats battled for a rare victory over Tennessee, an injury to the UK starting quarterback’s non-throwing left shoulder sent Johnson to the locker room for an X-ray.

When it came back negative, Johnson sprinted back to the Kentucky bench. The Kroger Field crowd roared its appreciation.

Johnson then returned to action to lead a last-gasp rally past Rocky Top, scoring the winning touchdown in what became a 29-26 UK victory on an 11-yard run with 33 seconds left. The TD run ended with the QB hurtling his body from around the 3-yard line into the end zone and landing on his aching left shoulder.

“Stephen,” Mark Stoops said at his weekly news conference Monday, “is a winner. And I think everyone knows it.”

With four games left, UK (6-2, 3-2 SEC) has a prime opportunity to record its first eight-win regular season since 1984 and first winning mark in SEC games since 1977.

Yet what will happen to Kentucky’s season if Johnson’s shoulder injury eventually sidelines him?

Johnson was a completely unknown junior-college recruit two years ago that a scrambling Kentucky only sought after quarterbacks Patrick Towles and Reese Phillips transferred. Now, the Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., product is putting together a stellar résumé for a UK QB.

Kentucky is 13-6 in games in which Johnson has been the primary quarterback. With Johnson at QB, the Cats are 7-6 in SEC contests.

Johnson has directed UK to four road wins. He has victories over both Louisville and Tennessee, the only UK QB to achieve that double since the Wildcats resumed playing U of L in 1994.

Stoops said Monday the shoulder injury that fleetingly sidelined Johnson against Tennessee will not prevent the senior from playing against Mississippi in Saturday’s 4 p.m. SEC game at Kroger Field.

Johnson will miss at least the first two days of practice this week, however, with what has been described as an injury to the acromioclavicular joint in his left shoulder.

The AC joint connects the top point of the shoulder to the clavicle. Depending on the severity of the injury, an AC joint separation can take anywhere from a few days up to 12 weeks to heal.

For a quarterback, the problem in recuperating from such an injury is the risk of taking further hits to the ailing shoulder.

So it would behoove Kentucky to have former starting QB Drew Barker ready to play.

Against Tennessee, the former Conner High School star directed the UK offense for five plays while Johnson was out. Barker handed off four times and ran the ball once himself for a 5-yard gain that was negated when he lost a fumble.

“I honestly had total confidence when he went in the game,” Stoops said of Barker.

Because Barker was such a high-profile recruit, turning down Steve Spurrier and South Carolina in 2014, it feels like the 6-foot-3, 222-pound redshirt junior has been part of UK football since Blanton Collier was coach.

In reality, Barker has barely played at all.

He started two games at the end of 2015, and three at the beginning of last year before a back injury ended his season and opened the door for Johnson.

Barker has played one of the best halves I’ve ever seen by a Kentucky quarterback, throwing for 287 yards and four touchdowns before halftime against Southern Mississippi in last season’s opener. He has also logged one of the least productive halves I’ve ever seen from a UK QB, going 1-of-14 passing for minus-1 yards in the second half of 2015’s season-ending loss to Louisville.

This season, when it seems every Kentucky game comes down to the final play, Barker is 2-of-4 passing in three brief relief appearances.

So there’s been no way to tell if he is the same player he was before the back surgery. Heck, there was no way to tell how good he was before the injury because the sample size of Barker’s playing career at UK is not large enough for fair appraisal.

In his five plays against Tennessee, “Drew did a good job,” Stoops said. “He made good reads, he made good decisions. I mean, obviously you can’t put the ball on the ground, but Drew will be fine.”

If Stephen Johnson’s balky shoulder grounds the QB’s magic carpet ride, UK’s chances to still finish 2017 by making positive history will depend on Drew Barker being at least “fine” at quarterback.

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