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Kentucky Football Preview 2016: Quarterback

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Can Drew Barker lead UK to the postseason? The tenth and final chapter of the position preview series.

Kentucky QB Drew Barker
Drew Barker aims to lead UK back to a Bowl game
Dale Zanine - USA Today Sports

The quarterback position enters 2016 with a different arrangement than any season since 2011. In the last six seasons, UK has mostly had their quarterbacks on a short leash, and it was an open question which quarterback would lead the offense.

Maxwell Smith or Morgan Newton? Maxwell Smith or Jalen Whitlow? Maxwell Smith or Jalen Whitlow the redux? Patrick Towles or Drew Barker? Patrick Towles or Drew Barker the redux?

The transfers of Towles and Reese Phillips provide a clear path for a Drew Barker ascension. While the aforementioned transfers necessitated the JUCO signing of quarterback Stephen Jackson, this is clearly Barker’s team. Regardless of the circumstances, this has been coming since Barker’s commitment to UK in the spring of 2013.

Destiny meet deadline.

Awkward...

Regular readers know that this writer does not think UK’s quarterbacks make much of a difference in terms of wins or losses compared to other factors in the last eight years. To a broader extent, this doesn’t only apply to UK. Each National Champion since 2010 has been led by a first-year starter at quarterback. The position is less consequential, and more supportive, at the collegiate level with the Hale-Bopp rare exception of a transcendent quarterback like Cam Newton or Vince Young.

This is a roundabout way of saying Drew Barker can make a significant impact in his first year as UK’s starting quarterback, but that significance mostly relies on other positions improving. Barker can’t have something like a 62% completion percentage without reliable receivers, or 1,000 yard rusher with solid offensive line play and adept running backs. Meanwhile, Barker will be hard-pressed to lead an offense to 30 points per game if he doesn’t have a defense or special teams that provide him good field position.

The Up’s and Down’s of Barker’s 2015 Season

Barker saw game action four times in 2015. In only two of those games did he attempt more than 10 passes - versus Charlotte and UofL - and in neither occasion did he do anything that would suggest he was ready to breakout. He would finish 2015 going 35-for-70 for 364 yards, one touchdown, and two interceptions.

Barker had flashes of poise and polish outside of garbage time in 2015, but he did not exhibit signs of consistency. For example, in his first drive against Vanderbilt he promptly led UK 70 yards down the field in five plays culminating in a seven yard touchdown pass to Ryan Timmons. Less than five minutes later, he tossed a pick-six that would be a huge factor in Vanderbilt’s 21-17 win (Vandy’s only offensive touchdown in that game came from a Boom Williams fumble on UK’s five yard line).

A few weeks later against UofL, Barker led UK 65 yards on its opening possession for a touchdown. On two occasions in that drive, UofL had UK in a 3rd-and-long situation, and both times Barker completed passes to keep the drive alive. By the end of the game, though, Barker would be benched in favor of transferring Patrick Towles, and would finish the game completing less than 30% of his passes.

Depth Chart Discussion

Name Year 2015 Stats
Drew Barker RS SO 364 yards, 1 TD, 2 INTs
Stephen Johnson
JR N/A
Gunnar Hoak FR N/A
Davis Mattingly RS FR N/A

The depth chart further underscores the starting position is Barker’s to lose. Sure, the coaches will hem-and-haw about how the other quarterback’s are competing, but that’s to keep them all focused. If Barker doesn’t start, there’s problems on the horizon.

Any viewer of the spring game is probably aware than Johnson wasn’t yet ready for primetime. He’s struggled with his accuracy and that was against a vanilla defense in a glorified scrimmage. A SEC defense giving multiple looks and feinting blitzes from every corner would quickly upgrade the difficulty settings.

Johnson might find a role in 2016 as situational quarterback on designed run plays, but if this gimmick is trotted out often, it would speak to wider issues with the offense. I’m good seeing Johnson in Shotgun with an empty backfield about once a month. Just enough for opposing teams to have to devote practice time to preparing for it; otherwise, Johnson would probably benefit from a redshirt season. Barker’s health will primarily play into that decision.

The other quarterbacks are young, and it’s not yet their time.

Fantasy Buys

Drew Barker is probably worth a late-round pick in a SEC-focused league. There aren’t many quarterbacks with known abilities outside of Ole Miss and A&M’s gunslingers, and if you can’t land them it’s best to wait until the later rounds. In one SEC mock draft, he went in the fourth round. If you think the offense will be better under Eddie Gran and Darin Hinshaw, Barker is not a bad bet but he will face tough defenses which will probably hurt his numbers.

Outlook

Despite the offense taking a big step backwards last season, UK still finished at least third in the SEC East in terms of total offense, scoring offense, and explosive plays. That does speak to the larger issue of the East’s offensive woes, but at the same time, all of that production returns along with four of UK’s five starting offensive linemen. This offense isn’t a juggernaut, but it’s not at all a bad situation for Drew Barker to walk into.

UK’s quarterbacks haven’t had much luck since Mike Hartline in 2010. They’ve lacked the supporting cast and pedigree. That’s not true in 2016. Barker is UK’s highest rated quarterback signee since Andre Woodson, and he has a plurality of weapons. On top of that, he appears set to get good coaching as quarterback coach Darin Hinshaw has a good track record working with former blue-chip quarterbacks such as Gunner Kiel at Cincinnati and Tyler Bray at Tennessee.

In short, Barker will have more tools at his disposable and a favorable coaching environment. The rubber will be hitting the road very soon, and Barker has favorable terms.