The Quarterback Games

Stephen Johnson hands the ball off to running back Benny Snell Jr. (Photo by Victoria Graff.)

There’s a mantra in football that insists: A player should not lose his starting job because of injury. It’s not fair!

This fairness doctrine has generally been applied to the quarterback position. Maybe they get hurt the most.

Never mind that Johnny Unitas, Kurt Warner and Tom Brady are among those who stepped in for an injured starter and never stepped out. Dak Prescott may have begun his own Hall of Fame career because Tony Romo got hurt last year.

Some injured quarterbacks never get back their starting jobs. All’s fair, as they say.

At Kentucky this summer, the argument has been given a new twist. A starting quarterback lost his job in the second game last year due to injury. The replacement stepped in and the team won seven of his 10 regular season starts and went to a bowl game.

More than that, the replacement played his best game of the year in the rivalry match-up against Louisville and its Heisman-winning quarterback. Did Stephen Johnson outplay Lamar Jackson? Questionable. Did he battle Jackson to the end and come out with the win? Did he command the drive that led to the winning field goal? UNquestionable.

In fact, which fumble-prone QB committed the more crucial turnover?

All of which gave Johnson the rail position going into this season. He’d shown he could be a winner. Drew Barker has not yet shown that. On the other hand, Barker did lose his starting job because of an injury. Not fair?

Even before he got hurt, Barker did not exactly fill Big Blue Nation with confidence last season. Except for a stunning first half against Southern Mississippi, he looked hesitant and confused.

The coaches listed their three-deep last week and Johnson was the starting quarterback. No surprise. What is surprising is that Barker and redshirt freshman Gunnar Hoak are both listed on the second line, with the word “or” between their names, which suggests that, by whatever standards are being used, Barker is slipping in the competition. At least for now. He hasn’t even locked down the number two spot. But one has to assume there’s room to move. Johnson is not without his faults.

Fast and shifty, he gave the position the dimension of another ball carrier out of the backfield last season. But he had trouble making the short pass, and too many of his long passes were rainbows.

And ugh! Those turnovers!

He did pass for more than 2,000 yards and 13 touchdowns. And he brought intelligence, grit and attitude into the huddle, those intangibles the fans can’t always identify.

As for the tangibles fans can identify – wins and bowl appearances – Johnson provided them.

Frankly, it’s hard to justify taking the job away from him at this point. Barker has to prove his case. So what chance does he have?

Does he hope Johnson stinks up the place to open the season and Mark Stoops and Eddie Gran have no choice but to make the switch? Let’s hope not. (Let’s hope Barker doesn’t feel that way. And let’s hope Johnson doesn’t stink up the place.)

So here’s where we are: We’re in late July. Fall camp starts soon, and then it’s a month until the season’s repeat kickoff against Southern Miss. One has to assume that Stoops and Gran will be using that time to evaluate both contenders. (All contenders, actually. Hoak had a good spring game, and hotshot freshman lefty Danny Clark is on campus, in uniform.)

Isn’t that what camp is for? Especially when you have competition for a position? A key position?

I’ve got to assume Barker will have his opportunities, somewhere in the process, to win the spot. By whatever criteria Gran and QB coach Darin Hinshaw value – poise, leadership, confidence, arm strength, accuracy, speed, tight spiral, throws an easy ball to catch, understands the plays, holds onto the ball, avoids interceptions, commands the huddle, is patient with his receivers, is impatient with his receivers – the coaches will be watching. Both QBs. All QBs. They’ll be seeing things we don’t always see.

It’s Gran’s offense, and by September 2, he has to have a good idea of which quarterback in camp will run it the best. Not who the fans want, or what the various experts think.

We’ve all heard him interviewed. This is not a wishy-washy guy. He knows what he wants. Whether Stephen Johnson takes the opening snaps, or someone else, it will be because Gran wants it that way. Not because of what’s fair. VT