The Kentucky Wildcats are heading into year 4 of the Mark Stoops era. The first of those three years, Stoops did not have a clear-cut quarterback at the top of his depth chart prior to the week before game one.
That will not be the case this fall with Drew Barker.
The importance of the QB for any football team cannot be understated. The QB has the ball in his hands on every play, he also plays air traffic controller by trying to predict collisions and possible danger to his general area by coordinating players to eliminate the threat.
The QB also has to lead the team in very intrinsic ways off the field, as well as on the field. If you do not have a signal caller who is all-in with the staff, demands excellence from everyone else by demanding it from himself, who holds people accountable for mental lapses by calling them to the rug...well, then you have just another position player.
The only teams that can afford to have a soft-spoken, less than dynamic personality leading their team are the Alabamas of college football. Those teams can afford to have a guy that does not need to "lead" because they have a distinct advantage week in and week out by engulfing the competition with 5-star talent.
In the past 30 years, you would be hard-pressed to find a successful UK team without a dynamic player under center that actually lead the team, enter Drew Barker.
Drew Barker was considered a significant recruiting haul for Stoops and company; he was a 4-star QB with eye-popping results and accolades. Barker was a 3-year starter for Conner High School in Hebron, KY, and during that time, he amassed 6,264 yards and 62 touchdowns (34 of those his Sr. year), all while throwing for a 66% pass completion rate.
Those numbers alone would be impressive enough, but add to those the damage he caused on the ground by rushing for 3,931 yards and another 51 TDs on the ground. To really put those numbers into context, what would that look like during an average game for his senior season?
- 19 for 31 for 270 Yards passing and 3.5 Touchdowns, along with 85 yards rushing and 1 touchdown.
Barker has always been a hard worker, and he has also been in control of his actions and knew exactly what he wanted, and how to accomplish it. I chatted with Drew's mother, Ellie Barker, and she had this to say about Drew as he progressed through high school and into UK.
"Drew has always been a quick, eager learner, and a very dedicated hard worker; striving to be the best he could be at QB. He made his own decisions how to navigate thru the recruiting process- choosing coaches, camps, and competitions that would help him progress. Drew was used to being in control of his path and was very successful at it."
It is basically a miracle that Barker even ended up at UK; before Mark Stoops and Neal Brown put him first and foremost at the top of their wish list, the school that Barker and his family grew up loving did not have much of a desire to even recruit Barker. His UK fandom went as far as him being at the 2007 #1 LSU upset in Commonwealth Stadium, he even took some blades of grass as a memento.
Fast forward to Barker being a top prospect; he attended a UK camp early in the summer of 2012 and was told to follow up with the coaches a couple days later.
"So I called them, thinking they were going to offer because I had performed pretty well at camp," Barker said. "But when I talked to them, they were like, 'So, have you been to any camps recently?' I was like, 'Oh man, I was just at your camp and you didn't even know I was there!' It was kind of funny, but that's when I cut it off. I was done with UK."
If the Mark Stoops era turns into a successful one, it will be in large part due to the recruiting success of Barke bringing players with him, as well as the on-field success of Barker. Barker spurned South Carolina, Louisville, Tennessee, Miami (FL), and Ole Miss to sign with the ‘Cats. Barker spurning those teams to stay in-state meant he could be the glue guy in that class and bring on more talent.
"This is what I've always wanted, to be recruited like this," Barker said. "At first, I was the one initiating everything. After my freshman year I sent out a ton of film, hoping to get interest. To go from that to where everybody's pursuing me now, it's pretty neat."
Barker did indeed play a key component in keeping that vaunted 2014 class together, in part by creating a class of 2014 Twitter account that allowed the core group to generate hype and bonding.
That 2014 class includes some very key players for this upcoming season. Matt Elam, Denzil Ware, Kendall Randolph, Mike Edwards, Adrian Middleton, Boom Williams, Mikel Horton, Dorian Baker, Blake Bone, and Garrett Johnson all came from that class.
As Big Blue Nation (and those recruits) watched the 2013 team go 2-10, with no real leader or clear QB, visions of a true freshman leader named Drew Barker danced in their heads. It was all but a formality that Barker would enroll in January, take over the starting job by the end of spring, have a tough freshman season and then lead UK to the Promised Land as the next Tim Couch.
THE BEST LAID PLANS...
However, former fellow Kentucky high school phenom Patrick Towles decided to resurrect a seemingly dead career and battled that spring. Towles ultimately earned the starting nod and Barker was relegated to redshirting. Ellie Barker described that time period to me as the following:
"It was tough on Drew during his redshirt season. He came to UK like any recruit with the hopes of playing early. What really carried him through adversity and challenging times was his tremendous family support system and his own inner toughness."
One can only imagine the frustration with being the face of a recruiting class and their leader, only to see it not manifest on the depth chart.
If you follow UK football at all, you know about a few minor transgressions during Drew's first year at UK. All I will say about them is the following. They have zero bearing on Drew Barker today; he was a 17-year old kid leaving home and being unsupervised for the first time in his life. It is in the rear-view mirror and there is a reason the rear-view mirror is so much smaller than the windshield in front of you.
Unfortunately, the social media-driven world we live in means you are in a quasi-spotlight nearly 24/7, 365 days a year. I challenge you to look at your 17-18-year-old self and wonder just how mature you were, and even scarier, what if social media was what it is today? I am guessing many of you reading this (and writing this, in my case) would have had some different outcomes in your life.
Pretty simple explanation from Barker on his growth: "I'm 20 years old now. I was 17 when I got here."— Kyle Tucker (@KyleTucker_CJ) April 16, 2016
When Drew Barker usurped the starting job from Patrick Towles last season, it seemed as though a changing of the guard was taking place. When Patrick Towles decided to transfer to Boston College, that torch was passed in full and Drew Barker was once again the face of a class of players that will determine Kentucky Football's future.
While Barker has some competition in JUCO transfer Stephen Johnson, this team is unequivocally his. Mark Stoops has named Drew Barker THE starting QB going into this 4-month offseason. That does not mean, however, that he is guaranteed to be under center on September 3rd; he will have to work to improve and stay on top.
"We have to keep working and everybody on the same page, keep working like we did in the winter and the offseason," said Barker, "We have to have that same hunger we had coming off that Louisville loss coming out of this spring."
When looking forward, Drew's mother Ellie had this to say:
"He is a very determined young man who has his sights set very high. Looking back, he knows that everything he has been thru during his time in Lexington has made him even more determined and has only strengthened his mental toughness."
"I don't think most people realize how difficult it is being a student athlete and the journey they embark on making the transition from high school to college. Drew knows that one's life experiences mold who you are and these experiences have shaped him and he has grown exponentially the last three years."
While the path for Barker to get to this point may not be the exact line that was drawn by him or his family, he is here, now embarking on year 1 of hopefully 3 as THE signal caller at UK (FYI -- he was also a sophomore at Conner when he took over the role).
Kentucky football fans are overwhelmingly starving for a winner on the Football field and this season could be the linchpin to a program that is a future contender. Right now UK Football is a pretender; they act like a big boy football team, and even recruit like one, but the on-field results have underwhelmed.
Coach Stoops and anyone tied to the program or administration has preached patience, and they have a point. We saw what Rich Brooks was able to do with patience and virtually little administration buy-in...not even close to the level of today's support.
If administrative support were a car, Rich Brooks financed a YUGO with no air conditioning at a buy here pay here lot, while Mark Stoops was handed the keys to a BMW. This is the season that will either justify or vilify Mark Stoops, partly due to that buy-in and support.
While the ‘Cats do not have to go out and win 7/8 games or else, they do have to start carrying their weight as the big boy school they strive to be. This means winning the games you are supposed to, being competitive in every single game, and looking the part.
It is only fitting that the recruit that Mark Stoops pointed to as his future franchise is now at the helm, leading many of those same players that Stoops told were the future of UK Football.
The Kentucky Football program is essentially at a crossroads, with Barker getting a chance to play the hero.
One of two things will happen going forward; either UK will progress and turn into that upper-tier SEC team they strive to be, or it will all fall apart and leave BBN with more heartbreak in what seems to be a never-ending string of them.
One thing is for certain though; this team is Mark Stoops' first team that is fully Stoop-ified, having all of his players leading. The group of kids that he put together is now in a position to lead UK Football to another level. Standing at the top of that group is the 6'3" 225-pound sophomore, Barker.
He is no longer the 17-year-old prospect trying to find his way and trying to understand what he is doing. Barker is now a 20-year old leader of men, with very clear direction and crystal clear goals.
Only time will tell if the former high school phenom can lead a seemingly ‘snake-bitten' program into prominence. If past performance and maturation is any indication of future success, for my money...I think the program is in good hands.