Secrets can tear people apart. They can lead to broken trust, broken friendships, and broken relationships.
Last year, a secret let to a broken body and a broken season for Drew Barker.
When we look back at the 2016 season for the junior quarterback, we see a picture that we cannot quite decipher. However, as we try tried to figure out which Drew Barker was the real one—the one who threw four touchdown passes in one half against Southern Miss, or the one who couldn’t complete a pass against Florida or New Mexico State—we did so not realizing that he was keeping a secret from all of us.
Drew Barker had a back injury. It was an injury that was bothering him through summer workouts and fall camp, and he kept it secret from the fans. He kept it a secret from the coaching staff, who he worried might not give him a chance to win the starting job and could effectively end his career at Kentucky. He kept it enough of a secret that he won the job, and came out flying in the opening half of the season.
Barker came out and threw for nearly 300 yards and four scores in the first half against Southern Miss, as Kentucky jumped to a 35-10 lead. It was what Kentucky fans had hoped for since Barker stepped on campus, and it was coming to life in front of their very eyes.
Then, it was gone, just as quickly. On the Wildcats’ opening series of the second half, Barker tried to throw a pass while being sacked, and he fumbled the ball. More importantly, and unknown to anybody outside the program, Barker hurt his back on that play, and effectively ended his season. “Excruciating pain down my leg,” is how Barker described what he felt when he hit the ground on that play. It broke the sophomore quarterback, who would throw for only thirty-six yards in the second half, and eleven more the rest of the season. He would complete fewer passes to his receivers against Florida and New Mexico State (three) than he would to the players on defense (four). He would finally be shut down mid-season for back surgery.
However, we all assumed that the hit happened against Florida. We didn’t know the secret. As such, we all viewed Barker’s season as “more of the same,” an abject failure from a player whose supposed promise was overstated and would never be realized. We then saw Johnson carry the team to a 7-5 record, an upset victory over rival Louisville, and a bowl game for the first time since the 2010 season.
However, while we all expected Johnson would continue to be the quarterback this year, there were still concerns about his play. Then, Jeff Badet transferred. Then, Dorian Baker was lost for the season.
Suddenly, there were major questions about whether this offense would be able to continue the success of last season, with Stanley “Boom” Williams also gone and the offensive line having to replace their star center.
Enter Drew Barker. Enter the quarterback controversy. Enter the reasons why I believe we need Drew Barker to win the job outright if we want Kentucky to have the type of season we think they can.
He Will Open Up The Field
Teams know what we have with Bennie Snell. They know that the sophomore running back will be fed the ball early and often. They also know that Stephen Johnson is wholly inconsistent on the deep passing game, and they will stack the box and dare him to beat them. I am not sure that he can. However, we saw that Drew Barker can. With Baker and Badet gone, it will be up to Garrett Johnson and company to step up and make big plays. That begins with getting the ball to them in places where they can create, and I am not sure that Johnson can do that with enough consistency for Kentucky to win seven games.
Perhaps even more importantly. he can make defenses pay on the play-action passing game. Tight end CJ Conrad needs to be involved more, and there are few better ways to incorporate a talented tight end into a power running game than to run play-action and get him against safeties in open space. With players like Conrad, Tavin Richardson, and eventually Lynn Bowden, giving receivers the ability to create in space is something that Barker is more prepared to do than Johnson.
He Can Run
While not on the level of athleticism that Johnson possesses under center, the running game does not have to change all that much with Barker out there. He showed against Southern Miss, even with an injured back, that he could run when necessary, and he did so with success. We have seen with him through his time at Kentucky that he can move the chains with his legs when things break down. The way defenses will focus on Snell, I believe that Barker can still run some option plays and keep defenses honest.
He Has His Teammates’ Trust
While secrets can tear things apart, I believe that this secret might make his teammates respect him even more. To fight through the pain he was experiencing simply to be out there means a lot to guys who know what that feels like. There has long been a feeling around the program that Barker was “the guy”, and his teammates seem to buy into that as well.
In addition, the fumble issues that Johnson dealt with last season have to weigh on the minds of everyone. Nothing will kill morale faster than seeing a promising drive snuffed out because of poor ball control, and Johnson was second in the nation in fumbles and fumbles lost, with ten and six, respectively. Johnson’s frame does not lend itself to the big hits that he often takes, and the ball security concern will continue to linger. That is not something you have to worry about as much with a healthy Barker, whose frame is that of a prototypical quarterback.
At the end of the day, Stoops and company will go with whichever signal caller gives them the best chance to win. I could be wrong, and Barker could end up struggling and Johnson could thrive despite a fall camp that left some concerns. However, I believe that Kentucky’s best chance to win seven or more games, and build on last year’s successes, lies with Drew Barker winning the starting quarterback job outright.