Mark Story

In UK starting quarterback battle, Stoops says Cats are looking for one main thing

In the prior two Kentucky spring football games, Gunnar Hoak has completed a combined 20 of 29 passes for 231 yards and three touchdowns. The redshirt sophomore from Dublin, Ohio, has yet to throw a pass in a real game, however.
In the prior two Kentucky spring football games, Gunnar Hoak has completed a combined 20 of 29 passes for 231 yards and three touchdowns. The redshirt sophomore from Dublin, Ohio, has yet to throw a pass in a real game, however. aslitz@herald-leader.com

To understand the impact Stephen Johnson had on Mark Stoops’ coaching tenure at the University of Kentucky, one need only conduct an audit of the bottom line.

With Johnson as UK’s primary quarterback, Stoops went 14-10.

Before Johnson, the unheralded junior-college transfer who seemed to come out of nowhere to save Kentucky’s bacon in 2016, Stoops was 12-26 as top Cat.

As Stoops met with reporters Monday morning to preview UK’s 2018 spring football practice, the search for a replacement for the graduated Johnson was a prevalent topic.

Stephen Johnson
In games in which Stephen Johnson was Kentucky’s primary quarterback over the prior two seasons, the Wildcats went 14-10. Michael Reaves

After one practice, it sounds like redshirt sophomore Gunnar Hoak and junior-college transfer “Touchdown Terry” Wilson, also a sophomore, already have the upper hand over redshirt freshmen Danny Clark and Walker Wood.

“I think we have some guys that can create some opportunity in the pass game and I’ve been impressed with the quarterbacks and just their talent, their arm talent and the way they throw the ball,” Stoops said. “I feel good about it, in particular, Gunnar and Terry.”

Mark Stoops
Even with the graduation of two-year starter Stephen Johnson, Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops says he’s confident UK will have quality quarterback play in 2018. “As much as we love Stephen and what he’s done for us, I think we're going to improve,” Stoops said. Charles Bertram cbertram@herald-leader.com

When the Cats kick off the 2018 season Sept. 1 against Central Michigan, Kentucky will have 17 starters back from last season’s 7-6 squad that lost a heartbreaker to Northwestern in the Music City Bowl.

What the Wildcats will not have is a quarterback who has ever thrown a pass in an FBS contest.

A 6-foot-4, 206-pound product of Dublin, Ohio, Hoak is starting his third spring practice at Kentucky. He has left UK fans wanting to see more after the past two Blue-White spring games, combining to complete 20-of-29 passes for 231 yards and three touchdowns.

Since Hoak is thought of as a pocket passer, if he wins the job you wonder if UK could continue to incorporate the run-pass-option game it has used effectively the past two years with Johnson.

Stoops says yes. “All the quarterbacks that we have in our system can do those things,” the Kentucky coach said.

Gunnar Hoak practice
Quarterback Gunnar Hoak threw a pass during a University of Kentucky football practice last August. As a senior at Dublin Coffman High School in Ohio, Hoak threw for 1,798 yards and 14 touchdowns. Charles Bertram cbertram@herald-leader.com

An Oklahoma City product, Wilson signed with Oregon out of high school and redshirted in 2016. After Justin Herbert won the Ducks’ starting quarterback job last spring, Wilson transferred to Garden City Community College in Kansas.

The 6-3, 205-pound Wilson threw for 2,113 yards and 26 touchdowns last season for Garden City, but also threw 11 interceptions while completing a so-so 57.6 percent of his passes.

You should not have to worry about the RPOs with Wilson. He ran for 518 yards and five TDs last season in junior college.

Terry Wilson action
“Touchdown Terry” Wilson (7) ran the ball during his high school career for Dell City in Oklahoma. The new Kentucky Wildcats quarterback ran for 518 yards last season at Garden City Community College in Kansas. KT King The Oklahoman

Clark was a longtime Ohio State recruiting commitment before parting ways with the Buckeyes as a high school senior.

One concern about the 6-2, 232-pound Ohio product is his accuracy as a passer. He completed only 54.9 percent of his passes in his senior season at Archbishop Hoban High School.

“Danny is ... doing some good things, and getting just as many reps as the other guys,” Stoops said. “You see his flashes at times, but we’ll see where it goes here this spring.”

Danny Clark old UK number
After wearing No. 13 last season as a freshman during a redshirt year, Kentucky quarterback Danny Clark has switched to No. 8 this season. Charles Bertram cbertram@herald-leader.com

The 6-foot, 190-pound Wood was one of the most exciting high school players in Lexington history, giving Lafayette High School fans a pretty good Johnny Manziel imitation every Friday night.

Since arriving at UK, however, Wood has mostly been trying to get healthy after battling a succession of injuries late in his high school career.

“Walker has practiced today,” Stoops said Monday. “He’s not 100 percent. He’s not going to be able to go every day.”

Walker Wood
Walker Wood is one of the most exciting quarterbacks ever to play high school football in Lexington. Since signing with hometown Kentucky, the former Lafayette High School star has battled injury. Lexington Herald-Leader file photo

For all Stephen Johnson achieved at UK in two seasons, Stoops says there is a main area where Kentucky needs improvement in its quarterback play.

“I think all of us would agree, for us to take it to the next level, we need to be more efficient at throwing the football,” Stoops said.

In last season’s first six games, Johnson completed 63.9 percent of his passes and threw for nine TDs. UK went 5-1 in those contests.

Over the final six games of 2017, Johnson — whose reed-thin frame had taken a physical pounding — completed 56.8 percent of his throws with one touchdown pass. The Cats went 2-4 in those games.

Stoops says he expects it take some time to figure out which of the current Kentucky QBs is most likely to deliver greater passing efficiency under game pressure.

“I feel confident that we’re going to improve at that position,” Stoops said of quarterback. “As much as we love Stephen and what he’s done for us, I think we’re going to improve.”

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