On Saturday afternoon, QB Stephen Johnson cemented himself among UK football giants after leading the Wildcats to one of the most electrifying victories in recent memory, defeating the #11 Louisville Cardinals 41-38. He tossed the most yards in a UK-UofL game since Jared Lorenzen back in 2000, led the team to the most regular season victories since 2007, and outplayed future Heisman winner Lamar Jackson in the process.
It was a good weekend for the Rancho Cucamonga, California native, for sure.
But his journey to stardom as the next big thing in Kentucky football didn’t just happen overnight. It was a process dating back several years ago, one that was kick-started by Johnson’s head coach at College of the Desert, Jack Steptoe.
Steptoe, a former NFL kick-returner and college standout, has been the head coach at College of the Desert since 2014, but has been with the program for almost two decades. It was he who found out about Johnson’s talent and helped him reach the success he’s having right now.
I caught up with the College of the Desert head coach, where he took me through Johnson’s transition from high school football, his short stint at Grambling State, his time in the junior college ranks, and all the way up to Saturday’s record-setting performance.
“It started back in 2013. I heard of this kid named Stephen Johnson through a few people, and I decided to go out and evaluate him. I met him at his high school, Los Osos, and worked him out. After just a few throws, I said ‘Wow, this kid is special.’ He had been overlooked. Stephen threw the ball great, he was very accurate.”
Former NFL standout Doug Williams was head coach at Grambling State at the time, and was a former teammate and close friend of Steptoe. Steptoe sent Johnson’s HUDL tape over to Williams, believing he would be a great fit in Grambling’s offense, and Williams was sold.
Steptoe says, “Doug called me immediately and said, “Shoot I’ve got to have this kid, he’s awesome.” He ended up calling him, offered him a full scholarship at Grambling, and Johnson accepted.”
Though all parties involved were excited for Johnson taking the next big step in his football career, his time at Grambling State didn’t go quite as expected. Johnson redshirted his freshman year, but won the starting job the following spring. He won four big games for the Tigers, but a high-ankle sprain forced him to sit out the next five games, each resulting in a loss. Grambling ended up losing the conference, and head coach Doug Williams was fired.
Steptoe said, “After they hired a new coach, Stephen called and said, ‘I’m unhappy. This new coach is not giving me the opportunity to win my job back.’ So Stephen decided it was best for him to look elsewhere.”
Johnson asked Steptoe if he could come out to the College of Desert on a visit and throw with some of his receivers, and the COD coach welcomed it. As soon as Johnson stepped on campus, he connected with the team’s receivers and coaching staff. The College of the Desert was known to have a great receiving corps, and Johnson knew he would have the opportunity to put up big numbers in the offense.
Steptoe told Johnson, “Wherever you decide to go, you are not in the position to watch. You need to play in order to bounce back up to D1, and you know you’re getting that chance here.” Johnson’s mother fell in love with the pitch, as she felt her son had the potential to raise his stock and play at a top-tier school, and College of the Desert was the best chance to make that happen.
After a brief conversation with his family, Johnson stepped into Steptoe’s office and told him, “Coach, I’m coming to the College of the Desert.”
There was a bit of an adjustment period for the new COD Roadrunner, as Johnson jumped out to two rough games, not understanding the team’s complicated offense quite yet.
But the quarterback wasn’t phased by his slow start. Go figure.
By game three, Johnson began figuring out defenses, making the proper progressions and reads, and let the game come to him. Everything started clicking, and his game exploded.
Steptoe said it didn’t take long before he realized Johnson was an elite talent, and he adjusted his offense as such when the moment came. “When Stephen wanted to change the play at the line of scrimmage, I let him, because I knew I could trust him. In our third game against Antelope Valley, it was back and forth, and that’s when he ‘arrived.’ The ability to recognize the defense, realize what they’re taking away, he always knew. He knew his weapons, he read mismatches, he was just so intelligent. He outsmarted every defense he went up against. From that game, he averaged four to five touchdowns a game, and didn’t have a game under 300 yards for the rest of the year. He was considered the number one quarterback in Southern California for a reason.”
Though Johnson was lighting up the scoreboard and breaking school records on what seemed to be a game-to-game basis, Steptoe knew he would have to say goodbye to his star quarterback sooner rather than later. That’s part of the game with blossoming junior college kids, but he was just fine with that. He knew Johnson was ready to take the next step, and did his best to put his name out there for big-name division one schools to catch wind of his talent.
“No one knew about him,” Steptoe said. “It was mostly smaller schools at the start, but then his recruitment blew up. Guys like Morehead State, Hawaii, Utah, Arkansas, and Oregon called. Hawaii showed a lot of interest, and Stephen liked them a lot. They all said ‘Wow. How did we not hear about this kid?’”
And then Kentucky came along.
Mark Stoops received a call from Steptoe’s buddy Doug Williams, who told him that the College of the Desert had a guy that deserved a look. Stoops got Johnson’s tape, reviewed it, and sent it over to UK co-offensive coordinators Eddie Gran and Darin Hinshaw. All three parties were impressed, and knew Stephen Johnson was their guy.
Stoops then made it Hinshaw’s job to reel him to Kentucky.
Steptoe received a FaceTime call from Hinshaw, who immediately expressed interest in his quarterback. The encounter, though, was different than most recruiting calls he’d received.
He said, “Right away, Hinshaw’s first question was, ‘What are Stephen Johnson’s problems?’ He wanted to know what kind of person Stephen was, what his flaws were. I told him, ‘Well, he doesn’t have any.’ I told him that when he makes a mistake, he doesn’t make it a second time. If he made a misread, it was over, it wasn’t happening again. It was unique, you can’t coach that. He keeps his poise, he just doesn’t get rattled. He just lets the game come to him. He will stay and deliver that ball when pressure comes. When he escapes the pocket, his eyes are right down field. Hinshaw said after reviewing his film, ‘God, I’ve never seen a quarterback like that. That’s one of the best quarterbacks I’ve ever seen.’ They wanted him at Kentucky pretty bad.”
Hinshaw got the JUCO star to come over for a visit, a visit that ended up being different than anything Johnson had ever experienced. Steptoe said following the visit that Johnson was amazed at the approach the entire Kentucky staff took in recruiting him. They weren’t focusing on hyping up the program and preaching promises they wouldn’t be able to keep like most coaches tend to do. Instead, they focused on Johnson’s mechanics and technique, trying to help his game in the future whether he ended up at Kentucky or not.
“Darin Hinshaw talked about mechanics with Stephen, specifics on his game,” Steptoe said. “They went into the film room and dissected film, asking him what he saw in everything. They respected his abilities, and wanted to know what he thought. He really felt at home there. He visited some other schools, but he bought into Kentucky’s vision. He was on board.”
Johnson went home and talked it over with his family and coaches, and believed Kentucky was his best option.
He told Steptoe, “I really like Kentucky. I like the atmosphere there, and I really love the people. I think that’s where I’m going to commit.”
“He knew he was going to get a huge opportunity at UK,” Steptoe said. “He knew he needed to jump on it. He knew the coaches would use him properly.”
Drew Barker, a consensus four-star prospect out of northern Kentucky, was considered the man to beat for the starting position when camp rolled around, but adding Johnson to the picture definitely put a new spin on things. Barker, Johnson, and redshirt freshman Gunnar Hoak participated in a QB competition for the starting position, but it was Barker that ended up winning the job.
When Johnson lost the QB battle, however, he wasn’t phased. Again, go figure.
“It didn’t affect him at all,” Steptoe said. “He welcomed it. We had a conversation about it following the decision, and he said ‘Coach, he’s the guy.’ Barker is a good quarterback, he deserved the starting position, and Stephen knew he needed to wait his turn. Not one time did he ever put Barker down. He was always very supportive of him, he understood. He’s a team player. He does whatever he has to do to make the team better. When the opportunity arises, however, he knew he had to take advantage.”
When I referred to Johnson as “the backup,” the College of the Desert coach quickly clarified that Stephen never saw himself as a “backup” quarterback. “He’s not really a backup, he’s always a starter at heart. He always practiced and performed as a starter, going through every day fighting for the job. He took the backup spot as a gentleman, and still carried himself with class. He practiced like a starter. Most guys get thrown in and they can’t handle it, but Stephen was always was prepared. When that opportunity came, he knew exactly what to do with it.”
When Barker went down early against New Mexico State, Johnson got the call, and rose to the occassion. Steptoe said, “I called him after I heard the news and said, ‘They’re ringing the doorbell. Here’s your shot. You add another element to the offense, and now defenses have to respect you as a runner.’ That element changed the entire offense, where they had to account for another player every time the ball is snapped. The rest is history. He came in, and immediately impacted the game. He’s a leader. When he got the call, he rose to the occasion. The cream rises to the top.”
As each game went on, the offense began to turn heads, but the bulk of the attention was on Kentucky’s star running backs, not Johnson. There was a learning curve with throwing the ball in his first few games, and the coaches relied heavy on the run early and often. But the Wildcats kept winning games, and that’s all that mattered.
Steptoe said. “He made everybody better just by the way he conducted himself on and off the field. He’s not a ‘rah-rah’ guy, he’s a doer. He just knew how to get the job done. He did it at COD, and he started doing it at Kentucky.”
Johnson impressed as the season went on, winning games and leading the team to bowl eligibility for the first time since 2010, but it was the Louisville game that put him on elite status. As hard to believe as it is, Steptoe wasn’t surprised at all.
“Here’s the difference,” he said. “Stephen didn’t turn the ball over, Lamar did. The most impressive drive was that last drive. What he did was absolutely phenomenal, that’s when pressure is the highest. His poise, you got to see his true leadership ability. After Kentucky recovered that fumble, I said ‘Oh man, this is over. Watch Stephen go down the field and win this football game.’ He had his eyes down the field, I saw his release, and knew this game was over how he carried himself down the field. I’ve seen the exact same thing happen when I coached him. He kept his composure, never got rattled. They got the ball back, and I knew that was ball game. You can’t coach that. You can’t coach heart, and Stephen’s got it. When the game is in Stephen Johnson’s hand, he always finds a way to win. The cream always rises to the top, and he proved that was him.”
We’re witnessing the on-field success of Stephen Johnson, but most don’t realize the impact he has made off the field, as well. “Stephen Johnson was the perfect example of a College of the Desert kid,” Steptoe said. “He shows his incredible character and carries himself with class. He ignited our program on the field, but off the field in particular. I’m blessed that he was a part of my life, and he tells me the same thing. That means more to me than anything. He came back during break and was on my sideline, warming up my receivers, doing whatever he can to help my team. He could’ve been anywhere at that time, but he came back to the place it all started and did his part for the next generation of guys to succeed. That’s what life is all about, that’s what this is all about. That’s just who he is. He changed the culture at College of the Desert.”
As a person, Steptoe says no one compares to the kind of guy Stephen Johnson is. “I can talk about Stephen Johnson till next week. Kentucky got a good one. He’s the most humble guy. You watch him in practice and go ‘Wow,’ but off the field is where he makes his impact. He’s just such a pleasure to talk to. He cares about what’s going on, he cares about others beside himself. He’s such a joy to coach, and it’s incredible to see him reaping those benefits at Kentucky. I promise you’ll never find a better guy. I’m glad everyone else is getting the chance to experience Stephen Johnson.”
Needless to say, we are too.