The day was November 26, 2011 and I was preparing for the annual Kentucky vs. Tennessee football game. Kentucky was 4-7, UT was 5-6, and a win would get them to eligibility for a bowl. I did not have much faith in the game but UT was reeling and it was at home so you never know. Then word started to trickle out that Maxwell Smith *and* Morgan Newton might be out with injury and my thought turned to "who is our 3rd string QB." The answer is we did not have one available.
Once it was confirmed that Senior wide receiver Matt Roark was going to line up under center because he had some QB experience in HIGH SCHOOL, well, at that point I was ready to chalk up another loss to the hated Vols and more mocking at BBN's expense.
As any UK fan alive knows, the Cats won the day on six completions and 15 yards of passing behind Roark. Roark went down in UK lore, and one of my personal heroes, but the bigger question to me was, "how the heck are we an SEC program and only had two people who could even lineup under center?" My point is two-fold: we now have a staff that has assembled excellent QB depth to a point where that scenario should never have to play out again. Secondly, it is always nice to reminisce that victory, is it not?
The 2014 Kentucky Wildcats football team has an intriguing decision coming up this fall: who will be lining up under center? As it stands after the spring session, it seems to be a 3-way race between spring starter - and surprise contender - Patrick Towles, freshman sensation Drew Barker, and the steady Reese Phillips. However, my opinion is that it is a duel between Towles and Barker. I am not discounting Phillips' ability or talent, I just feel that Phillips is the safe play and barring an injury, he will likely be a solid backup. Before discussing who should line up under center, we look at what they would bring to the table.
Patrick "Patty Ice" Towles is a 6'5" redshirt sophomore from Highlands high school in Ft. Thomas, Kentucky. Towles burst back onto the scene this spring with a new focus, a different set of mechanics, and a much-improved throwing motion. He has become the front runner for the job after holding a slight edge the entire spring session, and impressing in the spring game by going 11 for 15 for 126 yards.
Unfortunately for Towles, it is possible this article could have been moot had an injury not hit him during his freshman year. On his first drive, he went 5 for 5 for 71 yards and a 32-yard strike for a TD and all of BBN was rejoicing. Then UK Football happened, Towles suffered an ankle injury knocking him out of the game and putting him on week-to-week status. Towles would play in four more games that season but never really regained the movement or success of that first drive.
With Towles then being on the outside looking in last year the question became would Towles transfer or simply waste away buried in the depth chart for his career. In a remarkable show of resiliency, Towles took it in stride and even opted to redshirt. He took the year to improve and worked with QB guru George Whitfield to adjust his mechanics. Whitfield has worked with the likes of Cam Newton, Andrew Luck, and Cleveland Browns draft pick Johnny Football himself. The work seems to have paid off with the coaching staff raving about the new mechanics and quick release.
Some may forget just how acclaimed Towles was coming out of high school and truthfully he is as heralded if not more than freshman phenom Drew Barker. Towles was ranked the top overall prospect in Kentucky and the 9th best pro-style QB by rivals. Towles was also a Parade Magazine All-American and finished his Kentucky Mr. Football senior year at Highlands with 3,820 yards, 42 Touchdowns, and ONE interception all year. He also finished with 589 yards rushing and another 15 TDs on the ground.
Drew Barker is a 6'3" true freshman from Conner high school in Hebron, Kentucky. Barker is a four star recruit who enrolled early just to get a head start to being a member of the Wildcats. ESPN has even tabbed Barker as a program saving QB. As soon as the news of Jalen Whitlow transferring broke, it was seemingly a foregone conclusion that Barker would be the man from Day One this fall. That is, of course, until the aforementioned Patrick Towles decided to have a say in that.
Barker is a highly acclaimed recruit and one of the most important recruits for Coach Mark Stoops. Like Towles, Barker was tabbed by Rivals as the #1 prospect in Kentucky but a little higher rated than Towles as the 6th QB overall. Barker shares some similar traits with Towles in that he has good size, a big arm, and better than expected mobility. Where Barker has an edge is his leadership ability. Barker is a big reason that the incoming class stayed together and is making significant strides in his recruiting for the 2015 class.
Barker is also very talented. He is actually one of the most prolific performers in Kentucky football history. During his career, he completed 65.9 percent of his passes for 6,264 yards and 62 touchdowns and ran for another 3,931 yards and 51 TDs. More impressively, Barker was only a three-year starter at Conner.
So, Who Gets The Nod?
One scenario would be Towles wins the job in this rebuilding year and the Cats can have the luxury of redshirting Barker. This could set him up for a possible 4-year run as one of the best to ever play the position at UK and bring us back to national relevance. The argument for this scenario is this year is not going to be a "bowl-type" year, and you have a solid backup in Phillips, so why not develop Barker for a year as a redshirt?
There is also the possibility in this scenario that Towles takes off and becomes the starter for the next three years holding the job until Barker's final 2 seasons at UK. The argument for this to play out would be that Brown and Stoops would then have another stud waiting behind Barker. The hope is that this would create a quasi-assembly line of QBs insuring gaudy Air Raid numbers for years to come. This is likely a stretch scenario at best though.
Scenario 2 would be they hand Barker the keys from day one. Towles then becomes a fantastic back up ready to bail Barker out in what will likely be many learning moments along the way this year. The argument for this scenario is this year is not a "bowl-type" year and letting Barker take his lumps will do him more good than holding a clipboard for a year.
I think this staff is going to have a very tough time making this decision. They can let it play out somewhat on the field but I do not anticipate it being a clear choice to pick one or the other based on practice. It is a very appealing choice to go with Towles and redshirt Barker for a variety of reasons. Towles is on his third year in college football and is more physically and likely mentally developed. This is not a year we expect to contend; why risk Barker getting beat up mentally and physically? The SEC has a way of teaching freshmen some hard lessons and if you hand the keys to Barker do you do him a disservice by allowing him to go through a gauntlet when he may not be ready for it? Or worse he may not recover from?
While it is easy to play armchair QB from the friendly confines of my couch, but my opinion is that Drew Barker is the man from day one. Let me preface my explanation by saying the only reason I feel this way is due to the position of UK football. If UK were an established program with a modicum of recent success, going with Towles and redshirting Barker would be a no-brainer. This would give you the better chance of winning in 2014 and allow a prized recruit to develop and grow before tossed into the frying pan.
However, UK is in a major rebuilding mode and they are in desperate need of a leader to be the face of the program. They are in need of someone to take ownership of this program and announce to the rest of the country that this is no longer the "woe is me" Kentucky. They need someone to step up and laugh at people who claim UK football is cursed. The need someone who the rest of the boys in blue will get in line behind and follow. No disrespect to Patrick Towles leadership ability, but right now that man is Drew Barker. Barker was one of, if not THE biggest reason that UK held together a top-20 class this year. Barker is also paying dividends in the 2015 recruiting class that figures to be even better than this year.
Barker has the leadership ability, that much is clear, but he also has some things on the field that Towles does not. Barker is more mobile than Towles and is great at throwing on the run. However, the biggest reason I like Barker on the field vs. Towles is that Barker has the ability to run the read option very well. He ran it some at Conner and ran it to the tune of over 1,000 yards and 17 TDs per year average running the ball from the QB spot.
The reason this is important is due to the stable of thoroughbreds that will be behind Barker this fall. I recently wrote an article regarding these "Four Horsemen" and you could guarantee that Neal Brown will not let that talent rot as blocking backs. In addition to being pass catchers, they will also run the ball quite a bit and having a QB with that ability will create big plays all year.
The bottom line is we are finally past the years where we have to lineup Matt Roark at QB due to lack of depth and it is oh so refreshing and exciting to see what UK football is going to evolve into.