Eddie Gran’s quarterbacks are the focus of the second part of KSR’s preseason position previews series. Don’t miss part one on the Running Backs.
Stephen Johnson — Inserted into action against Florida, the junior college transfer took an early beating in the pocket. He quickly bounced back to lead the Wildcats to five wins in the next six games, with the only loss coming at the hands of Alabama.
Johnson completed 54.7 percent of his passes for 2,037 yards, 13 touchdowns and 6 interceptions. His best performance cemented his place in UK lore forever, outplaying Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson with a 338 yard, 3 touchdown performance. Just like Stephen, UK fans loved this sh**.
Drew Barker — Barker earned the keys to the offense prior to the start of the 2016 season. In the first half of the first game, he was 11-of-19 for 287 yards and 4 touchdowns. Barker looked untouchable. Then it all fell apart. He would not throw another touchdown in his redshirt sophomore season. Five interceptions and a severe back injury later, he was forced to the sideline for the rest of the season after seeing marginal time in three games.
The former four-star prospect from Northern Kentucky returned to football activities during spring practice. Ahead of his rehab schedule, now Barker is throwing with the second string, 100 percent clear to perform all football activities and playing like the quarterback coaches saw prior to his career-threatening back injury.
Gunnar Hoak — The redshirt freshman arrived in the spring of 2016 from Dublin Coffman High School. Impressive in two spring games, the pocket-passer has a bright future ahead in Lexington.
Luke Wright — A walk-on transfer who came to Lexington with Darin Hinshaw and Eddie Gran from Cincinnati, Wright earned a scholarship this offseason. He started under center against Austin Peay but played sparingly after throwing a Pick Six.
Danny Clark — The left-handed two-time Ohio state champion has a powerful arm. At 6’4″ 225-pounds, Clark played physical as a three-star prospect out of Akron.
Walker Wood — The Lexington Lafayette quarterback enrolled early this spring with his freshman competition, Clark. Wood spent the time learning the offense and rehabbing a late-season knee injury.
Take care of the ball. — UK’s -7 turnover margin ranked 107th nationally in 2016. Most of that is in the quarterbacks’ hands. Interceptions weren’t the primary problem. Barker and Johnson simply couldn’t hold onto the ball. Each had fumbles in the red zone; Johnson’s against Miss. State nearly cost the Cats the game.
Eddie Gran is confident that will not be a problem for Stephen Johnson in 2017. “Well I don’t think there’s any question he’s going to get it fixed, because he won’t be playing. And he knows that,” Gran said at Media Day. My best advice: no popcorn in the pregame meal.
How long is the leash on Stephen Johnson? Drew Barker graduated this spring. He could’ve transferred and been eligible to play immediately, but he stayed at UK. It leads me to believe there’s an opportunity for Barker to become the starter once again. Why else would he stay?
Stephen earned the starting position by leading UK to seven wins and a bowl appearance. He is the leader of the offense. He also can be inconsistent. If he’s missing easy throws and turning the ball over, how long will Gran let him play through his mistakes before pulling the trigger on Barker? For the team’s sake, it’s a scenario fans should not hope to see this fall.
Can Johnson hit Conrad? — Johnson is an excellent deep-ball passer, but no matter how wide open C.J. Conrad was in the middle of the football field last year, he could not hit his tight end on the quick run-pass-option pass. The two spent the offseason working on their timing and after just one open practice, it sounds like the two have already fixed the problem.
Is Hoak good enough to be QB2? The redshirt freshman was excellent in the 2017 spring game. Hook completed 16-of-24 passes for 174 yards and 3 touchdowns (one of which was on a QB scramble). Confident in the pocket, Hoak was arguably the best player on the field. Still, he will likely receive reps behind Barker as QB3. It’s not a knock on Hoak; it’s a testament to how deep UK is at the quarterback position, a statement you can rarely make about UK football.
In 2016 UK attempted 560 rushes and 312 passes, which equates to an approximate 65-35 run to pass ratio. That number will be much closer to 50-50 in 2017.
Thrown into the fire after just a months in Lexington, Stephen Johnson’s experience will elevate his performance and open up the Kentucky playbook in 2017. Defenses will stack the box and force Johnson make quick decisions. I expect Johnson to perform well under pressure and improve his completion percentage on short and mid-range throws. Just two weeks into camp and Gran has already praised Johnson’s improvements in the intermediate passing game, giving the UK offense a plethora of options in 2017.
There’s one prediction that will reign true: Kentucky fans will pick a
quarterback side, and argue over it. In the embrace debate society we live in, you’re either a Barker guy or a Johnson guy and you will beat the war-drum until you’ve smashed said drum into a million pieces.
While you’re busy arguing over who’s the man, the UK quarterbacks are improving their play to produce the best football we’ve seen from the position in a decade.