Notebook: UK Approaching QB Uncertainty Step by Step

An injury to a starting quarterback is never ideal, but Kentucky did get something positive out of Drew Barker leaving the first series of Saturday’s game against New Mexico State.

The Wildcats found out they have a capable backup in Stephen Johnson II.

“I thought he was really exceptional,” Mark Stoops said. “He started a little shaky the first possession. After that first possession he really settled in and played an exceptional game, really. He made good decisions. He was very poised.”

Johnson was outstanding in relief as UK won for the first time this season, 62-42. He completed 17-of-22 passes for 310 yards and three touchdowns while adding a new dimension with his running ability in picking up 51 yards on the ground.

The performance prompted calls by some for Johnson to take over on a full-time basis, but on Monday UK released its weekly depth chart. Barker is still the first stringer.

“Drew’s listed as the starter on the depth chart for a reason,” Stoops said.

Whether he’ll be available when UK (1-2, 0-1 Southeastern Conference) hosts South Carolina (2-1, 1-1 SEC) and first-year head coach Will Muschamp is a matter for another day.

“We’ll see how the week goes on,” Stoops said. “I’m in no position to talk about that right now. He had an MRI. He’s gonna consult with our doctors and some specialists and we’ll get to the bottom of it and see what’s best for him.”

Barker’s injury is to his back, as the sophomore took a hit on his lone series. However, he has experienced back issues before.

“He’s had some issues that were lingering, so it’s not just one hit,” Stoops said. “So if you look at the hit it doesn’t look anything too much, but I think you put that and compound it on some of the back problems that he’s had, even going back to last week at Florida.”

After Barker won the job in the spring, this was supposed to be the first season under Stoops without quarterback questions. Now – in collaboration with Eddie Gran and Darin Hinshaw – Stoops will have to navigate an uncertain week for UK’s signal callers.

“I’ll see how healthy (Barker) is,” Stoops said. “It’s hard to talk about hypotheticals right now. I have no idea how healthy Drew’s gonna be and what he’s gonna look like this week. I was just asked if I anticipate Stephen playing and the answer is yes, I do. To what extent, I don’t know.”

Defense a ‘work in progress’

UK hardly looked like the same defensive unit before and after halftime on Saturday.

The first half saw the Wildcats give up 343 yards and 35 points. In the second half, UK rebounded and held New Mexico State to 157 yards and seven points, forcing four punts and intercepting a pass on the Aggies’ six drives.

Stoops is still eying improvement.

“We did make some adjustments,” Stoops said. “There was a few things. We’ve got to play better defensively. Some of it is fixable, relatively easy to fix, and some of it is gonna be a work in progress. But Coach (D.J.) Eliot made some good suggestions from the press box, watching it from the press box, some suggestions at halftime and some adjustments that really were helpful, and really we should have played better than we did.”

True to his background, Stoops thought first of the secondary. Three big plays – the first score of the game on a deep ball, NMSU’s second touchdown on a trick-play pass and the 55-yard strike that set up an Aggie score just before half – are still sticking in Stoops’ craw nearly 48 hours later, but he knows he needs to coach his players to move on from mistakes.

“It is hard, because these kids, they care,” Stoops said. “They want to do right. With that they have to grow up. They have to take the criticism. We all have to take the criticism. It goes with the territory. Those guys have got to understand: You want to go play in the arena then deal with it. That’s what you’re constantly trying to get them to overcome.”

Up front, Stoops has been relatively pleased with the play of UK’s defensive ends, but said the Cats have been getting consistently beaten inside. Then further complicating matters has been the fact that UK’s offense has rarely had sustained drives – until the second half on Saturday when the Cats had three touchdown drives of seven plays or longer.

“Some things can be fixed, but it’s not good to get completely out of kilter when you’re struggling, and it’s not good to have one-play turnovers, one-play punt fumbles, one-play touchdowns," Stoop said. "It’s all that. We just got to settle in, let the guys settle in and play a little bit.”

Stoops proud to be part of honoring pioneers of integration

The four players who broke the color barrier in SEC football – Nate Northington, Greg Page, Wilbur Hackett and Houston Hogg – have drawn more attention of late, but they’ve long been visible inside the UK program. Northington and Hackett have spoken to the team on multiple occasions since Stoops’ arrival.

“They always mean an awful lot to us,” Stoops said. “We always do enjoy when they want to spending some time talking to our team. We ask them to come talk every year whenever they’re here.”

This week, though, is special. On Thursday, a statue of the four will be unveiled outside the Kentucky Football Training Facility.

“It’s significant,” Stoops said. “It’s significant for our program, our history, the university, the state and those individuals. So, we’re proud to be a part of it.”