Mark Story

If Gunnar Hoak transfers, what does Kentucky do for a backup quarterback?

UK Coach Mark Stoops liked his team’s explosive plays

Kentucky football coach Mark Stoops talks to the media after his team’s annual Blue-White Spring Game on Friday, April 12, 2019. Stoops said he was happy with the way his first-teamers performed on offense and defense.
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Kentucky football coach Mark Stoops talks to the media after his team’s annual Blue-White Spring Game on Friday, April 12, 2019. Stoops said he was happy with the way his first-teamers performed on offense and defense.

Now, Gunnar Hoak has a life decision to make.

If the 6-foot-4, 212-pound redshirt junior-to-be from Dublin, Ohio, finishes his University of Kentucky degree in agricultural economics this school year, the backup quarterback can use the graduate transfer rule to move to a different FBS program for the 2019 season and play immediately — with two seasons of eligibility left.

“Right now, I’ve got to focus on finals, focus on these final papers I’ve got to do,” Hoak said after Kentucky’s annual Blue-White spring football game, “and then see what happens from there.”

Once he has earned his degree, will Hoak transfer in search of a clearer path to become a starter?

“I haven’t decided yet,” he said quietly.

Mark Stoops with Gunnar Hoak.JPG
Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops encouraged quarterback Gunnar Hoak (12) during UK’s Blue-White spring football game Friday at Kroger Field. The Blue Team (starters) defeated the White Team (non-starters) 64-10. Alex Slitz aslitz@herald-leader.com

The Blue team (Kentucky’s starters) plastered the White team (backups) 64-10 on Friday night before a Kroger Field crowd of 16,665.

A year after directing UK to its third 10-win season in school history, incumbent starting quarterback Terry Wilson completed 10 of 12 passes for 191 yards and two touchdowns for the Blue.

Starting for the overmatched White, Hoak completed nine of 15 passes for 88 yards. Given a chance in the second half to play with the Blue, Hoak went 14 of 15 passing for 174 yards and two scores.

“That’s huge to have two quarterbacks that both of them can come in and do it, and to have that competition,” UK offensive coordinator Eddie Gran said.

Yet when UK kicks off its 2019 season against Toledo on Aug. 31, the Wildcats might be down to one capable, veteran QB.

If Hoak leaves, Kentucky would find itself with no quarterback who has ever played in a college game other than Wilson.

In that scenario, what would the Cats do for a backup?

Because Hoak and Wilson will both be redshirt juniors in 2019, there is no certainty if the former stays in Lexington that he will ever be a college starting quarterback.

Terry Wilson
Kentucky quarterback Terry Wilson (3) started all 13 games for UK a season ago. He led the Wildcats to 10 victories, including a 27-24 win over Penn State in the VRBO Citrus Bowl. Alex Slitz aslitz@herald-leader.com

Of course, Stephen Johnson, then a junior, entered the 2016 season as the UK backup with his path blocked behind starter Drew Barker, then a redshirt sophomore.

By the season’s third game, a back injury had ended Barker’s season. Johnson seized the chance and led Kentucky to 14 wins over two seasons.

Hoak is one play away from the same opportunity at Kentucky — and Wilson, UK’s second-leading rusher last season (547 yards), is a quarterback who runs the ball.

A season ago, Hoak threw only 26 passes, completing 13, in five games. He also runs the risk of two more years spent like that if he stays.

“The only time I’ve talked to Gunnar (about his pending decision), I’ve laid the path and talked about the path to being here at Kentucky,” UK quarterbacks coach Darin Hinshaw said. “Getting your Master’s degree, which he will be able to get 30 hours done in three semesters, no problem.

“And then, being here, and going and competing to be the starting quarterback. And he is doing that now. … So I am very excited about (Hoak) staying here and being a part of our program.”

Yet Hinshaw acknowledged that “the way college football is today,” quarterbacks without a clear path to becoming a starter often depart.

Without Hoak, UK would be down to oft-injured redshirt sophomore Walker Wood or incoming freshmen Nik Scalzo and Amani Gilmore as scholarship QBs behind Wilson.

Wood, a Lexington product, used to give Lafayette fans a pretty fair Johnny Manziel imitation. But the 6-foot, 189-pound Wood’s daring came with a physical cost. He has battled shoulder and knee injuries since high school.

“Walker has had his injuries, his situations, his setbacks,” Hinshaw said. “He’s just got to continue to work and get better.”

Walker Wood after Citrus Bowl
Kentucky quarterback Walker Wood (17) celebrated with confetti after UK beat Penn State 27-24 in last season’s VRBO Citrus Bowl. The former Lafayette High School star has battled injuries and their aftereffects since arriving at UK. Alex Slitz aslitz@herald-leader.com

At 6-foot and 175 pounds, Scalzo is also a smallish QB. The Fort Lauderdale, Fla., product tore an ACL in last season’s Florida 5A high school football playoffs.

“Scalzo has the best people working with him as far as rehab, and he looks incredible,” Hinshaw said. “He’s way ahead of where he should be.”

A 6-2, 200-pound product of Amite, La., Gilmore is a two-sport star who is playing high school baseball right now.

“But he’s also been throwing (the football),” Hinshaw said. “I’ve been on the phone with him. … I am very excited about him coming in and competing in August.”

Should UK find itself without a veteran backup quarterback, could the Cats still risk using Wilson as one of their primary ball carriers?

Hindshaw noted that when Barker got injured in 2016, Johnson and Hoak were left as Kentucky’ only scholarship QBs. “And we still ran Stephen Johnson,” Hinshaw said. “We had to do what we had to do to go win games.”

Stephen Johnson running
In 2016, when Kentucky was down to two healthy, scholarship quarterbacks on its roster, starting QB Stephen Johnson (15) was still used in the running game. Jonathan Palmer

Should Hoak transfer, UK backers should understand why he would seek a better chance to be a starting quarterback.

It will leave Kentucky in quite a pickle, however, at backup QB.

“We’ll have to adapt,” Hinshaw said. “And, you know, that’s my job. I’m going to get (the other backup quarterbacks) ready.”

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Mark Story has worked in the Lexington Herald-Leader sports department since Aug. 27, 1990, and has been a H-L sports columnist since 2001. I have covered every Kentucky-Louisville football game since 1994, every UK-U of L basketball game but three since 1996-97 and every Kentucky Derby since 1994.

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