By LARRY VAUGHT
No one has to tell Kentucky junior quarterback Drew Barker that he’s changed because Barker knows that better than anyone.
“I’ve had a lot of different experiences, learning from them and stuff. I feel I am in a great place right now mentally, emotionally and physically, too. I am just ready to show the coaches I am ready. Lately I have just been hurt and not able to produce,” said Barker. “Now I am healthy and can change that.”
Barker was a four-star quarterback out of Conner High School in northern Kentucky. He threw for 6,264 yards and 62 touchdowns and ran for 3,931 yards and 51 scores before picking UK over South Carolina and Tennessee.
He redshirted in 2014, was Patrick Towles’ backup in 2015 and won the starting job in 2016. He had a banner season opener throwing for 323 yards — fifth most in school history in a season opener — and four touchdowns against Southern Mississippi. But UK blew the big halftime lead, lost the next week at Florida when Barker took a vicious shot on the game’s first play and then went out for the season early in the third game against New Mexico State.
“It was a different perspective being hurt. I am just glad to be back on the field now,” Barker said.
Barker has been good — very good — so far in preseason drills. He likely will not beat out returning starter Stephen Johnson by the time the season opens but UK coaches continue to make it clear there is a quarterback competition.
But what has been overlooked by many is that Barker has already graduated from UK in 3 /12 years (he graduated from high school early to get a head start at UK) with a degree in integrated strategic communication with a minor in business.
“Coming in early helped. I had a couple of credits I took in high school that counted for college credits, so I got kind of a boost there,” Barker said about earning his degree already. “It was just grinding and taking it seriously. At the end of the day you have to look at it that I have this great opportunity to go to school, play football and get your school paid for. You need to take advantage of that.
“As I matured and looked at it, you really need the academic portion to succeed. Football is going to end at some point. I know a lot of people say that but until you realize that … and then you want to take advantage of all UK offers.”
He finished his degree during the summer. He had an online class, one four-week class and did an internship at Central Bank that he said “was really cool.” Now he’ll start work on his Master’s in public financial management.
“I am going to start graduate school and have two years to complete that. I can go slower than a lot of guys get to,” Barker said. “(Placekicker) Austin MacGinnis is doing like a one-year Master’s program and he has already had like 15 hours of class work this summer, which is crazy. I’ll go at a much slower pace.”
His parents, Ellie and Terry Barker, are proud of how he’s returned from back surgery but especially proud of him already earning his degree. They value that he took advantage of the chance to get his education payed for thanks to football.
“His mother and I have always preached football will end some day, even for (New England quarterback) Tom Brady, but education is the rock and foundation and no one can take that away from you. We have stressed the importance of a great education. He’s always been a good student, been on the SEC honor roll,” Terry Barker said. “He took some college credits that transferred in. Then they go to school year-round. Those hours add up pretty quick.”
Not everyone could concentrate on finishing a degree after suffering an injury that made some wonder if he would ever play football again. Barker’s father said he had to “compartmentalize” his life and keep football and academics separate.
“His goal was to get his degree. Life has storms and they will come. It’s not if they will come, but when. If you have a solid foundation, your house will not get blown over,” Terry Barker said. “Part of that is getting your education. Me, his mom, his grandparents, his nieces, cousins … we are all proud of him. He’s been a role model for his younger nieces.”
His parents had no idea how much pain the quarterback was in last summer before the season started. They thought he had “tweaked” his back but would be able to play through the pain and keep the starting job.
“The first play of that Florida game did not help when the kid came through untouched and flattened him. Then we saw him go down against New Mexico State and we felt so bad for him because we knew how hard he had worked,” Terry Barker said. “We tried to keep his spirits high. He had surgery the day before Thanksgiving and he had to watch the Louisville game at home with us.
“He was really happy for the team that it won but he wanted to be out there with them for that. It was just hard. But he’s done well and he’s happy to be back on the team and getting a chance to play knowing he also has a chance to end his career not only with his degree, but also his Master’s.”
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