April 12, 2014

Barker impresses at closed UK scrimmage

Drew Barker is supposed to be winding down his senior year of high school.

Instead, he's gearing up in Kentucky's quarterback competition.

The freshman early enrollee was a standout in a closed scrimmage Saturday at Commonwealth Stadium, coaches said afterward, and he's in a four-man mix with junior Jalen Whitlow, sophomore Patrick Towles and redshirt freshman Reese Phillips this spring.

"I think the biggest thing about Drew is, if you would've came out and just watched us today, you wouldn't have know he was a high school senior," offensive coordinator Neal Brown said. "And that's the most impressive thing to me. Because the mechanics of the game and not being in awe of being in that stadium for the first time and playing, that was what I was most impressed with."

All four competing quarterbacks -- junior Maxwell Smith is out this spring -- got "about equal reps," Brown said, and got their reps with the first- and second-team offenses.

Whitlow and Phillips "had their moments," head coach Mark Stoops said, but Barker and Towles who grabbed the attention of coaches.

Towles, a 6-foot-5 redshirt sophomore, "made some throws in live situations that he hadn't made here," Brown said.

"He's making throws that he's always made on air, but he made those against the defense being out there," Brown said. "I know he's got really good arm talent; he always has."

So does Barker, a 6-foot-3, 213-pound Conner High School product who was among the most buzzed-about prospects in Kentucky's highly regarded 2014 recruiting class. The freshman, who enrolled in December, is strong and mobile, and coaches haven't backed down from the assertion that he'll have a chance to win the starting job right away.

"Completions and touchdown passes," Stoops said when asked what impressed him the most about Barker on Saturday. "But, yeah, you have to look at the tape and see who it was against, what happened, a few things, but overall pleased. Pleased with how he handled himself, how he operated the good offense."

Barker's poise made an impression on at least one teammate.

"Half of the time, I just thought one of the older guys was in and it was him," running back Jojo Kemp said. "He stood out."

Barker and Towles weren't alone in making waves on Saturday.

On the whole, Stoops said, Saturday's scrimmage was "a lot better" than the one Kentucky held a week ago, and it featured a good balance of offensive production and defensive stops.

"Definitely really the best we've played this spring, for sure," Stoops said. "Look a whole lot better."

Stoops singled out linebackers Josh Forrest and Khalid Henderson for strong play, and defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot came away impressed with junior-college transfer A.J. Stamps.

But -- as is to be expected with a wide-open quarterback race -- much of the post-scrimmage talk centered on QBs, and though Stoops and Brown typically are reluctant to talk about that race, there clearly were positives.

And Kentucky needs them.

Quarterback play was a major sticking point last season for the Wildcats, who went 2-10 and struggled to settle on a starter between Smith and Whitlow. Smith completed 105 of 183 passes for 1,276 yards, nine touchdowns and an interception; Whitlow was 98 of 159 for 1033 yards with five touchdowns and five picks, rushing for 457 yards and six touchdowns.

Meanwhile, there was good buzz on Phillips at practice, and Barker was being billed as the future of the program.

Now, Kemp said UK's coaches "got a handful" when it comes to selecting a quarterback.

"I see them all out there competing when they're not in," Kemp said. "They're focused, looking at what they're supposed to do, going through their reads. Even in practice, when they're not in, they're standing in the back going through their progression and everything. All of those guys are talented, all of them trying to compete and everybody's trying to get in that starting job. And that's what you need."

Though Brown said he'd like to select a starter earlier than he did a season ago -- he didn't rule out choosing one at the end of the spring -- he said the race remains wide open.

"We're better," Brown said. "Whoever the quarterback is going to be, they're going to be better than we played last year. So that's pleasing."



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