How real is the hype surrounding Kentucky's quarterbacks?
When Kentucky sophomore quarterback Reese Phillips went down with an achilles injury that will likely cost him the 2015 season, the Wildcats were reduced to just two scholarship quarterbacks on the roster: rising redshirt junior and returning starter Patrick Towles as well as redshirt freshman Drew Barker.
The two quarterbacks share a number of similarities. Both are true pocket passers by trade but possess subtle escapability with their legs and hail from the state of Kentucky. Both took a redshirt year early in their careers, both are former four-star recruits, and both were seen as potential saviors of the offense when they originally signed with the Cats (Towles in 2011 and Barker in 2014).
Because Kentucky has only two scholarship quarterbacks, and because there are so many parallels between the two at the position, it is taking its time to determine the starter in 2015. Towles is the incumbent at the position, but he played much better during the team’s 5-1 start than he did during its 0-6 finish to last season (go figure). Barker redshirted last year and has never taken a college snap, although he does possess plenty of promise as a former top-tier high school quarterback.
Head coach Mark Stoops said throughout the since-concluded spring practice season that both quarterbacks were rotating practices working with the first-team offense, indicating the competition was truly as wide open as promised. Stoops and offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson noted on multiple occasions that some days Towles looked like the better quarterback and others Barker did, but both coaches seemed very pleased with both quarterbacks at the end of the spring.
“I know the old adage that if you have two you don’t have any, but I don’t believe that,” Stoops told the Lexington Herald-Leader earlier this month. “Right now with Reese (Phillips) being out, we only have two quarterbacks on campus and both myself and Coach Shannon (Dawson), we believe that we can win with both of them.”
Stoops hasn’t indicated that he’s leaning one way or the other, but can we take him seriously when he says “we can win with both of them” in 2015?
Of course, both quarterbacks appear to have improved from a season ago, but Stoops was also likely aiming to instill confidence in both quarterbacks as he and his staff aim to lock down a starter for the fall.
Towles may not have done enough this spring to cement his starting spot for a second straight year, but one can assume he has a leg up in the competition even if Stoops and Dawson won’t admit it. After all, he has a full season of starting experience in the SEC, won two more games in conference play than UK had won the previous two seasons combined and is the more mature player of the two.
Barker has yet to make his Kentucky debut and yet he’s already served his first suspension as a Wildcat and has been involved in a number of off-field situations that don’t present him in the best light. For instance, he may have been sucker-punched by a former teammate and current Eastern Kentucky University football player last week, and he was also involved in a fight with some EKU football players earlier this offseason at a bar near the EKU campus. Barker, a true freshman at the time, was not even of age to be inside the bar. That doesn’t exactly command respect or confidence from coaches.
Last fall, he was suspended one game for his involvement in firing pellet guns on UK’s campus that some mistook for real guns, resulting in a brief campus lockdown. Again, that doesn’t fit the mold of a commanding starting quarterback in the SEC.
And because he’s yet to play against any opponent but his own team’s defense, this is all we have to go off of. No matter how good he plays in practice, he appears, at least for now, like an immature kid still learning how much responsibility an SEC quarterback actually faces. Stoops has appeared pleased with Barker’s maturity since those incidents, but there’s still work to be done.
Meanwhile, Towles may not have closed last season well, but there’s reason to believe he’ll be better this fall if given a chance to start. His biggest nemesis was turnovers, and more specifically interceptions. During the 5-1 start to the year, Towles threw a total of four picks, three coming in the lone loss in triple overtime to Florida; during the 0-6 finish he threw five interceptions but threw at least one in four of six games.
However, he’s now had an offseason to watch film and learn from those mistakes. He’s had another spring practice season to improve his decision-making, apply what he’s learned and gain greater command of the offense. He already understands the speed of the SEC, has developed rapport with UK’s bevy of young wideouts and has been pushed to improve even more by the competition Barker provides.
Towles won’t be one of the two or three best quarterbacks in the SEC, but there’s a case to be made for his ability to lead UK to six wins this fall. The same case can’t be made for Barker, at least not at this juncture of his still-young career.
So is the hype surrounding these quarterbacks justified? The answer is both yes and no. One thing’s for certain, though: Whoever is taking snaps for Kentucky this fall will assume leadership of the team. One player has shown flashes of the ability to handle that burden; the other has not. And at the end of the day, that can make all the difference.