2016 Production and Accolades
Entering the year, one belief was shared by many fans: “In a make or break year, this year’s team will fall on the shoulders of Matt Elam and Drew Barker.” Neither significantly contributed, yet the team won seven regular season games. Most of Kentucky’s 2017 success rests on the shoulders of Stephen Johnson.
Between Johnson and Barker, the numbers are not that impressive: 186.1 yards passing per game, 17 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. The beginning of the season was filled with turnovers and uncertainty. Once the junior college transfer got comfortable in the pocket, the offense changed.
Johnson led Kentucky to a 7-4 record and accounted for just under 2,500 yards of total offense. His touchdown to interception ratio was more than 2:1 (13:6). He found consistency in his deep ball and discovered how to balance his arm with his legs. In the final two games of the year, Johnson accounted for 68 percent of Kentucky’s total yards.
Abilities aside, the most important asset Johnson provided was balance. A level-headed leader, even when the Cats were dealing with catastrophe, he remained calm. In the end, that demeanor, that confidence made them a team that never flinched and learned how to win close games.
- Johnson’s Governor’s Cup performance led to MVP honors and the Manning Quarterback of the Week Award. Johnson was also named as UK’s MVP in the TaxSlayer Bowl.
This is the most difficult time I’ve had grading a position. Johnson did so much for this football team, but there were so many fumbles. So. Many. There was almost one too many against Miss. State. If there was one or two less against Southern Miss, Kentucky wins the ball game. What made the turnovers hurt even more — they were often in the red zone.
Kentucky didn’t let the ball fly all over the field, but Kentucky wouldn’t have gone bowling without exceptional playmaking ability at quarterback. The only appropriate grade: “C’s get degrees.”
There are no departures. Everybody returns in 2017.
- Danny Clark: The left-handed pocket passer committed to UK shortly after removing his pledge to Ohio State. A proven winner and an exceptional athlete, Clark finished his high school career with back-to-back Ohio Division III state titles.
- Walker Wood: The hometown quarterback, Wood will enroll early with Clark. Wood also played in back-to-back state titles, but came up short in both tries. Unfortunately, his spring practice snaps will likely be limited after injuring his knee in the 6A state final.
It’s Stephen Johnson’s team. An excellent deep ball thrower, he has an offseason to make short and intermediate throws automatic. He must also be a mainstay in the weight room, needing some bulk to protect his body against SEC opponents.
Behind Johnson, Gunnar Hoak showed plenty of promise in last year’s spring game. The redshirt freshman will receive the majority of the second string snaps while Drew Barker recovers from back surgery. Where Barker fits in will remain a mystery until he’s 100 percent healthy. Wood and Clark will learn invaluable lessons as early enrollees.
The Cats lost two of their three running backs, but return their quarterback and most of his primary targets. Kentucky relied on the run in 2016, but I expect an improved Stephen Johnson to lead a more balanced attack in 2017.