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No QB controversy as Stoops plans to start Barker if he’s healthy against Gamecocks

By Keith Taylor
KyForward senior sports writer

If all goes as planned, Drew Barker will be Kentucky’s starting quarterback when the Wildcats take on Southeastern Conference foe South Carolina Saturday.

Barker, who left after the first series in Kentucky’s 62-42 rout of New Mexico State last week, injured his back after getting hit on the third play of the game and didn’t return.

Stoops said Monday that Barker’s status is uncertain, pending the results of an MRI and advice from the team’s medical staff. Stoops added Barker’s back has been a minor lingering issue and escalated during a 45-7 loss to Florida two weeks ago.

If healthy, Drew Barker is expected to start against South Carolina Saturday (UK Athletics Photo)

If he’s healthy, quarterback Drew Barker is expected to start against South Carolina Saturday (UK Athletics Photo)

“We’ll see how the week goes,” Stoops said. “We’ll get to the bottom of it and see what’s best for him. I have no idea how healthy Drew’s gonna be and what he’s gonna look like this week.”

If Barker returns to practice this week, Stoops made it clear who would be the starting quarterback, despite backup Stephen Johnson’s performance against the Aggies last week.

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

However, Stoops did say that Johnson wouldn’t be nixed from the game plan entirely.

“I would assume (he will play Saturday),” the Kentucky coach said.

During his four-year stint at Kentucky, Stoops hasn’t been known to pull the plug on a starting quarterback three games into the season without a legitimate cause but has a solid backup plan in place if Barker can’t play against the Gamecocks.

Aside from his first series, backup signal caller and junior college transfer Stephen Johnson gave the Wildcats a much-needed lift last week and led Kentucky to its first victory of the season last week.

Johnson misfired on just five passes on 22 attempts and threw for 310 yards and three touchdowns, all to tight end C.J. Conrad, who caught a career-high five passes for 133 yards.

“I thought he was really exceptional,” Stoops said. “After that first possession, he really settled in and played an exceptional game, really. He made good decisions. He was very poised. He was accurate on the deep ball. He got the ball on the bubble screens, where we have the run-pass options on the bubble screens and the RPOs where we get the ball down the field to C.J. (Conrad). He made very good decisions and was very poised and he was accurate.”

Johnson’s career performance is just what the Wildcats needed after scoring just one touchdown in six of the first eight quarters to open the season. In addition to his accuracy in the pocket, Johnson rushed for 51 yards last week, giving the Wildcats another threat on the ground.

 Running back Benny Snell Jr., left  and UK offensive coordinator Eddie Gran were all smiles after UK's win Saturday (Bill Thiry Photo)

Running back Benny Snell Jr., left and UK offensive coordinator Eddie Gran were all smiles after Kentucky’s first win Saturday (Bill Thiry Photo)

“There’s no doubt it helps (the offense),” Stoops said. “Even if it’s just somebody on the backside just lingering around a little more, then you can get a few more yards sometimes instead of the over-lappers all the time. It definitely helps.”

Regardless of who gets the call this weekend, Stoops isn’t worried about developing a game plan to tailor either quarterback.

“We have a lot of offense we can pull from,” Stoops said. “What we’re going to feature each week depends on what you’re going to see and where we go and how much we can handle week to week. We talked about it last week as a team, being relatively simple on both sides of the ball to be able to execute better.”

Kentucky’s scoring offense ranks fourth in the conference (34.7 points per game), sixth in rushing defense (190.3 yards per game), eighth in total offense (416.7 ypg), seventh in pass offense (226.3 ypg) and first in pass efficiency at 170.1.

Despite the numbers that have the Wildcats near the middle of the road in the league, Kentucky’s offense has struggled at times and has committed 10 turnovers, five on the ground and five more through the air. Stoops said his team’s miscues haven’t done the team’s fragile defense any favors this season.

“It’s an issue,” Stoops said. “Anytime you’re not playing the best defense, you definitely don’t want to be put in bad situations. When you score that many points you’ll take it, but you know and I know we’re not always gonna do that. We’d like to protect the football.”

As the Wildcats delve deeper into the conference portion of the schedule, Stoops is confident his team’s offense will improve and produce as the season progresses.

“We know there will be much more difficult competition, but I certainly have a lot of confidence in what Eddie (Gran), coach (Darin) Hinshaw and the whole offensive staff do. But also, we have guys who have played a lot of football. And that’s where, you know, we should (be playing well).”

Game tracker: South Carolina at Kentucky, 7:30 p.m., Saturday. TV/Radio: SEC Network, 98.1 FM WBUL.

Keith Taylor is a senior sports writer for KyForward, where he primarily covers University of Kentucky sports. Reach him at keith.taylor@kyforward.com or @keithtaylor21 on Twitter

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