A week before the 2016 season finally starts next Saturday with Kentucky playing host to dangerous Southern Miss on Sept. 3 for a 7:30 p.m. tilt on ESPNU. And unlike last season, UK begins with a new starting quarterback.
Drew Barker isn’t new. He’s a redshirt sophomore who played in five games last season, starting the final two, the 58-10 win over Charlotte and 38-24 loss to Louisville. He completed 35 of 70 passes for 364 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions. He basically got his feet wet before being asked to jump in the pool the last two weeks.
Whether Kentucky sinks or swims this season will have much to do with Barker. As former UK head coach Rich Brooks so accurately said this summer, while Mark Stoops’ program has made strides in recruiting, the lack of consistently good quarterbacking play has held the Cats back.
As a first-year starter (for the season), Barker will undoubtedly experience growing pains. He’ll have his ups and downs. ESPN’s David Ching, in breaking down the quarterback position, expressed his doubts recently, writing “It’s one thing for those around the Kentucky program to be optimistic about his capabilities, but Barker actually delivering in a game would be another things entirely.”
Ching gave UK a C- grade for its quarterbacks, but I think Barker will be better than that. Here are three reasons why:
1. His tool box. Coming out of Conner High School in Burlington, Barker was a four-star recruit rated as the state’s No. 1 prospect and the fifth-best pro-style quarterback in the Class of 2014 by Rivals. He picked Kentucky early in the process over South Carolina, Auburn and Louisville, among others.
Barker attended the Elite 11 quarterback camp run by former NFL quarterback Trent Dilfer, who said this of Barker, “We’re running sluggo, where you have to be really quick with your three, pump fake to make the corner bite -- that would have been hard tor him six weeks ago and now he’s making it look easy. His feet get up and down, he has the sudden movement with his upper body, the corner is biting, he resets. A lot of juice has sufraced from him in a short amount of time.”
That was three years ago. Listening to UK’s coaches, especially quarterbacks coach Darin Hinshaw, you get the impression Barker is making similar progress now. Hinshaw has praised the way Barker has worked, the way he has taken to the task of making the pass protection calls when at the line of scrimmage. If Barker fails, it won’t be because he lacked the necessary skills to do the job.
2. His willingness to be aggressive. As the past two seasons progressed, Patrick Towles, the previous starter, appeared more hesitant to take chances. Towles held on to the ball too long. He acquired happy feet in the pocket. He would go for the safe throw. And even then, his pass completion percentage of 56.1 was down from his 57.3 in 2014.
Barker is more of a swashbuckler. In drills, he has shown a willingness to try and fit the ball in tight windows. That’s a risky strategy, to be sure, but risky is better than rote. It may also be something that’s needed from the quarterback at Kentucky, often at a talent disadvantage against SEC opponents. Your quarterback has to make plays. I think Barker can do that.
3. He has the weapons. Boom Williams is healthy and leads a deep stable of running backs that includes Jojo Kemp, Mikel Horton, Sihiem King and probably freshman Benny Snell. UK also appears to be deep at receiver, especially with the emergence of redshirt freshman Tavin Richardson and juco transfer Kayaune Ross. It’s also expected that tight end C.J. Conrad, who caught just 15 passes as a true freshman, will be more of a factor as a sophomore.
Barker’s biggest weapon, however, may be standing on the sideline in new offensive coordinator Eddie Gran. Last season, Gran coordinated an attack at Cincinnati that finished sixth in the nation in yards per game at 537.8. UC was second nationally in third-down conversions at 51 percent and sixth in passing offense at 359.9 yards per game. Bearcats’ quarterback Gunner Kiel was 18th nationally in pass efficiency with a 151.9 rating.
This doesn’t mean I’m predicting sudden stardom for No. 7. His first year as UK’s starter, Andre Woodson threw just six TD passes compared to six interceptions in 2005. The under-appreciated Mike Hartline thew for just nine scores, compared to eight picks as a redshirt sophomore in 2008. As a redshirt freshman starter in 2000, Jared Lorenzen threw more interceptions (21) than touchdowns (19).
Still, I think Barker has the ability to be as productive as those three quarterbacks turned out to be in their Kentucky careers.
Kentucky’s passing leaders last 10 years