With the news that Drew Barker will be out at least a month with a back injury, the reins of the Kentucky offense are now firmly in Stephen Johnson’s hands. When Barker went down vs. New Mexico State, Johnson more than performed ably in his place; he reenergized the Kentucky offense, leading the Cats to 692 total yards, the second most in any game in the program’s history. Johnson was so impressive that, even if Barker was able to go this week, most fans would agree that Johnson should probably get the starting nod anyways.
When you think about it, it’s kind of crazy that the fate of this season lies in the hands of a player none of us had heard of last season. With that in mind, I spent my day learning all about Stephen Johnson.
Darin Hinshaw found him
Who should you thank for bringing Johnson to Kentucky? Quarterbacks coach Darin Hinshaw. Right before Hinshaw was hired, Patrick Towles announced he was transferring, meaning that when Hinshaw got to Lexington, his first task was to find a backup quarterback with experience in case Drew Barker went down. After evaluating several JuCo quarterbacks, Hinshaw focused on Stephen Johnson out of College of the Desert in Palm Desert, California.
“In the process I thought he was the best,” Hinshaw said of Johnson earlier this week. “For what we do offensively, I said, ‘this kid can really be a weapon.’”
“Coach Hinshaw did a heck of a job. We definitely felt like we needed some experience there and we did look around,” Stoops said yesterday. “Once they brought in Stephen, and we looked at him, and brought him in on a visit, we were sold. I’m sure glad we have him right now.“
…says every UK football fan in the Bluegrass.
He’s a California boy
Johnson was born in Inglewood, California and attended Los Osos High in Rancho Cucamonga. He was recruited to Grambling State by then head coach Doug Williams, a former NFL quarterback. He sat out his freshman year in 2013, during which Williams was fired, and started the first four games in 2014 before suffering a high ankle sprain. Johnson was never able to get his starting job back, so in 2015, he looked elsewhere, finally settling on College of the Desert, coached by Jack Steptoe, who coached Johnson in some camps during high school and ultimately steered him towards Grambling State. If you’re still wondering why College of the Desert, I mean, look at it:
Who wouldn’t want to go to school there?
At College of the Desert, he ran the spread to perfection
In 2015, Johnson threw for 3,210 yards and a state-leading 34 touchdowns along with eight touchdowns rushing. All in all, he accumulated 3,639 yards of total offense while leading the Roadrunners to 37.5 points per game, a 6-4 record, and a share of the league title for the first time in over a decade. Johnson was named Mountain America Conference’s Offensive Player of the Year, which earned him several offers from Division I programs across the country.
He turned down Hawaii to come to Kentucky
Johnson ultimately picked Kentucky over Arkansas State and Hawaii, the latter of which you may know looks like this:
Again, who wouldn’t want to go to school there? I love Kentucky as much as anyone, but if you’re going to offer me the chance to live in Hawaii for two years for free, I’m taking it. Thankfully, Johnson is much more pragmatic than me when it comes to such things and chose the chance to play at an SEC school over rainbows and palm trees. He was also smart enough to take an official visit to Hawaii before his making his decision, even if he claimed it was strictly business.
“It was a quick visit, Saturday to Sunday,” Johnson told the Warrior Sports Network. “I really enjoyed it. I loved my visit while I was there. It’s a beautiful place and it seems like there is great football there. I didn’t even go on the beach. My mindset while I was there was that it was a business trip. No parties or anything like that, just sitting down with the coaches to talk about philosophy and schemes to find out if it would be the right spot for me.”
If you ever doubt Johnson’s loyalty, just remember that he chose us over paradise.
He’s a math geek
I am horrible at math, so I have a lot of respect for people who are good at it. In the UK Football media guide, Johnson says his non-sports talent is “excelling at math” and that dream job other than playing in the NFL is banking. Not only that, he’s an agricultural economics major, which means, one day, he might be able to tell us what a hill of beans costs.
I could probably twist Johnson’s love of numbers into an explanation for why he is so calm and pragmatic on the field, but really, I just like when players admit they’re a little bit nerdy.
He can move the ball with his arm or his legs
Coming in, we knew Johnson was a dual-threat quarterback that could keep defenses honest with his feet, but I especially admire his toughness on this run:
– Scott Charlton (@Scott_Charlton) September 17, 2016
Johnson showed he can handle screens, short passes, etc., but one of the few knocks on his game coming into the season was his ability to throw the long ball. Johnson proved everyone wrong with this 54-bomb to Jeff Badet:
– Scott Charlton (@Scott_Charlton) September 17, 2016
Under his hand, UK put up its first 300 yards passing/300 yards rushing game maybe ever
Here’s a fun stat: going back to at least 1985, Saturday’s game was the first time that Kentucky has had at least 300 rushing yards and at least 300 passing yards in the same game. I’d argue that Johnson moved UK’s offense better than any quarterback in the Mark Stoops era. Yes, it was against New Mexico State, a team ranked 121st in total defense that probably didn’t prepare to face him, but still, UK’s offense looked really, really good with Johnson at the helm. After getting some first drive jitters out of the way, Johnson rolled, completing 17-22 passes for 310 yards and three touchdowns. He also carried the ball ten times for 51 yards and helped get the running game going, handing the ball off to Boom Williams and Benny Snell, who combined for 325 yards and five touchdowns. For some reason, everything that didn’t work with UK’s offense under Drew Barker suddenly worked under Johnson.
What Johnson can do against an SEC defense that’s had a whole week to prepare for him remains to be seen, but Saturday was promising to say the least.
He’s his biggest critic
We’ve outlined why Johnson’s performance on Saturday was so impressive, but if you ask him, it was just alright.
“I think I did alright,” he said Saturday night. “There are a few things I can change, a few throws. I think I missed my first drive, but other than that, as a team, I thought we did really well.”
After looking at tape, he conceded that he played “pretty well, I guess.”
“I was a little bit pleased,” Johnson told reporters on Tuesday. “For me, I’m my own greatest critic. I want to go 100 for 100 completions and have no incompletions at all and execute everything perfectly, have every perfect pass. But it went pretty well, I guess.”
You might expect a different response from a kid who’s played at three different schools in three years and just got his first taste of the spotlight, but we’re quickly finding out that just who Stephen is: calm, poised, and ready to go.
“It comes from my parents, first of all,” Johnson said of his calm demeanor. “They always raised me to be as humble as I can, and be as calm as I can, and trust the Lord in everything that I do. That’s what I try to do at all times, and I guess that’s where my confidence comes from.”