Stephen Johnson had a rough outing against Vanderbilt, we all saw it. We all let out heavy sighs and mumbled under our breaths when thrown balls hit the turf, sailed over the receivers’ heads, and nearly fell into the mitts of multiple defenders. “That ball was almost intercepted” was said by the announcers at least six times by my count, and one of those throws was effortlessly picked off. Johnson had a bad game, simple as that.
When things got ugly in the passing department on Saturday, the immediate reaction for fans was to look to backup QB Gunnar Hoak in hopes of righting the ship and putting a W in the win column, myself included. I caught myself multiple times inspecting the sideline for the true freshman, wondering whether or not Johnson would be getting the shaft in favor of the young gunslinger, it happens.
But it shouldn’t, not yet at least.
The backup quarterback, no matter who it has been, has always been the fan favorite. They’ve always been thought to be “the guy” to take the team to the next level. In the Stoops era, we’ve seen it with Patrick Towles, last year with Drew Barker and Reese Phillips, earlier this year with Stephen Johnson, and now with Gunnar Hoak.
In the Spring Game, I’ll admit Hoak really impressed me. He was accurate, made smart decisions, and showed some impressive mobility when the pocket collapsed and he was flushed to the outside, albeit competing against 2nd and 3rd string defenders. Should Stephen Johnson go down, I think Hoak would be able to get by at QB until either Barker or Johnson was ready to return. That being said, Johnson hasn’t gone down, and he’ll be the first man out under center when the Wildcats take on Mississippi State following the bye week.
Let’s be real here, how often does the backup quarterback come in and completely revamp the offense? How often is the replacement’s success significant enough to bench the starter long term, especially for non-injury reasons? It has happened, sure, but it’s not often.
I know it’s easy to get giddy over the “unknown” factor of what the backup QB might bring to the table, but let’s not forget that we aren’t the one’s putting in the dirty work to evaluate these players, the coaches are. The coaching staff has spent hours upon hours tirelessly evaluating every player on the roster, breaking down film and individual strengths and weaknesses. If it were Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers sitting there on the bench, I promise you they’d be getting the starting job. In fact, they wouldn’t have been the backup in the first place. Drew Barker was the starter for a reason to begin the year, and when he went down, Stephen Johnson was the replacement for a reason.
When it comes to the big picture, Stephen Johnson is 3-1 as a starting quarterback for the Kentucky Wildcats, 2-1 in the SEC. When healthy, he hasn’t been a human highlight reel, but he’s been serviceable and has done what it takes to lead UK to victory. Boom Williams, Benny Snell, and Jojo Kemp have shouldered quite a bit of weight for him, but overall, Johnson has been a veteran leader, he’s been calm and collected, and helped move the chains and put points on the board when the team needed it most. He has his flaws, but there’s potential for success.
Johnson made some unbelievable plays on his feet, several of which moved the chains in make-or-break moments in the game to help solidify the win. His outstretched leap for the first down marker on the fourth and one rush to the outside, the fantastic read on the option in the red zone for the touchdown, moving the chains on third and long in the fourth quarter to keep the defense off the field, etc., all plays that were absolutely vital in UK coming away with a victory. It was ugly, but he did what it took to help the Wildcats keep their bowl hopes alive, and that’s about all the coaching staff can ask of him at this point in time.
Beyond the success on his feet, Stoops said yesterday that Johnson muscled through a wrist injury against Vanderbilt, a fairly reasonable explanation for some of the throwing mistakes made. He made some bad reads, threw the ball into tight coverage on several occasions, neither of which likely had a lot to do with the injury. Some of the wide open throws he just flat out missed, however, can be at least partially blamed on the injury. Even with a bum wrist to potentially use as a crutch for his mistakes, he took ownership of all aspects of his rough outing, which definitely stood out to me in terms of his maturity as a veteran leader. Last week he promised he’d do what it takes to minimize the fumbles, and he did just that. This week, I expect no different.
In today’s practice, Eddie Gran spoke highly of Johnson, saying he threw the ball very well in 7-on-7’s, and Stoops mentioned the QB’s wrist wouldn’t be a big issue moving forward. Two major positives, and we’re just on the first practice since game day. With eleven days till UK’s next battle, there’s a whole lot of opportunity for improvement.
Gunnar Hoak may be talented, but he’s a true freshman, and throwing him in with the sharks right now just isn’t the smart move. There’s a lot of work to be done for Johnson, and if UK wants any shot at a bowl, he needs to get these problems fixed. That being said, the JUCO quarterback has two weeks to get healthy, work hands on with Eddie Gran and Darin Hinshaw, and focus on taking care of the football both through the air and on the ground. There’s reason for optimism.
If Stephen Johnson continues to take the necessary measures to work out some of his kinks, UK has a chance to knock off Mississippi State at home, and hope for a bowl game will be alive and well.