BY LARRY VAUGHT
Kentucky coaches believe they found a winning quarterback last season with the way junior college transfer Stephen Johnson played while helping UK win seven games.
But the Blue-White Game that ended spring practice last week also showed that UK redshirt freshman Gunnar Hoak could be a future star as well. In fact, Kentucky may have never had more quarterback depth with last year’s starter, Drew Barker, coming back from his offseason back injury and true freshmen Danny Clark and Walker Wood both already on campus.
Hoak completed 12 of 18 passes for 92 yards and two scores for the White team in the Blue-White game during the first half. In the fourth quarter, he got two series with the Blue team — composed of No. 1 players at each position — and went 4-for-6 passing for 82 yards and ran for a 5-yard score.
“His confidence has gotten better as the spring went on,” offensive coordinator Eddie Gran said.
“He’s been very poised. You see he’s effortless at times,” Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said. “And I just like the way he handles himself back there. He throws a very catchable football. He’s very accurate. The more experience he gets, the better he looks.”
The former Ohio high school star admitted he was looking forward to the spring game and having a chance to show what he could do. “I would say that staying in the pocket and getting the ball out is one of my strengths. Something I need to work on that Stephen (Johnson) does well is getting outside of the pocket and hitting that speed,” Hoak said. “It was a lot of fun out there, and a lot different from last year. I thought I did well. I have to keep getting better through May and come back in June, lift hard, and get ready for camp.”
Hoak thought he might be redshirted last year with Barker in line to take over the offense. When Barker went down with the back injury, many thought he might play but Johnson played so well that Stoops was able to stick to the plan to redshirt him.
“Personally I think I am getting better every day. It was a good experiencer redshirting and learning the offense and getting that connection with the guys and hopefully getting to play more in the future,” he said.
He’s not worried about the depth of talent at quarterback, either. He says quarterbacks coach Darrin Hinshaw gives each player equal attention.
“You have to love to come into a college experience and compete with the other guys. That’s the name of the game to compete. If you win, you win and just keep getting better,” he said. “I have improved but we are all getting better. You just have to compete and give the best you have and see what happens.”
He said Hinshaw worked on his throwing motion to where he got the ball back more with a higher release. He also concentrated on his footwork and speed daily during spring practice and that will not change over the summer.
Hoak said he learned last season that it was not easy to play quarterback in the Southeastern Conference but likes the talent UK has.
“Stephen has improved a lot from last season. He’s become even more of a leader on the team,” Hoak said. “Drew did well. He stayed ready and was a big part of the team last year. He just could not play but he still had a huge role on our team and he got to do more and more as spring practice went on.
“The new guys (Clark and Wood) are a little shocked just like I was last year. Getting to know that college offense compared to what it was in high school is tough. But they are getting it and in the fall we are going to have a lot of guys battling to get playing time.”