While Kentucky prepares to go up against one of the best quarterbacks in the nation this week, the Cats got some good news about their own signal caller.
Seven-game starter Stephen Johnson, who didn’t start on Saturday because of a knee injury, has been cleared to go this week, UK Coach Mark Stoops said Monday to preview the Louisville game.
“No setback yesterday when he came in and got his treatment and there’s no swelling, came out of the game fine, so that was good to hear,” Stoops said.
When the Cats fell behind 13-0 to winless Austin Peay on Saturday at Commonwealth Stadium, the hurt junior-college transfer came on in relief and helped Kentucky right the ship and win 49-13.
The struggling Cats managed just 26 yards of offense under walk-on quarterback Luke Wright to open the game against the Governors before Johnson entered. The junior was an efficient 5-for-9 from the field for 101 yards and two touchdowns. He also ran twice for 10 yards.
A knee injury suffered at Tennessee had limited Johnson in practice the week leading up to Austin Peay, which led to coaches opting to sit him.
“He was banged up and was not able to practice, was not able to be on his leg very much,” Stoops said of Johnson. Coaches decided Friday to let Wright start.
As he has been much of the season, Johnson was a calming force for the Cats against the Governors.
“It’s hard not to admire Stephen Johnson and see him play hurt,” Stoops said of the junior, who has thrown for 1,113 yards and four touchdowns in eight games. He’s also run 63 times for 134 yards and two other scores.
“To see him come in and have the poise and the confidence, you can see that with the team,” Stoops continued, noting the pretty pass Johnson threw immediately after entering the game. “That was great for our football team and it says a lot about who Stephen is. He’s a tough guy, like I mentioned after the game. And he’s a leader and been very pleased with him.”
Even though A.J. Rose won’t see the field this season, the true freshman running back is doing his part to help Kentucky (6-5) try to beat No. 11 Louisville (9-2) this weekend.
To try and simulate the hard-running style of Heisman Trophy front-runner Lamar Jackson in practice this week, Kentucky’s scout team will use Rose in place of Jackson.
“I don’t know if anybody can give you that kind of look,” Stoops said when asked about Rose’s ability to mimic Jackson, who leads the nation in rushing touchdowns with 19 and is eighth in the country in rushing yards with 1,367.
Rose is one of several class of 2016 players who have been standouts on the scout team this season and Cats coaches are excited about seeing on the field next season.
Rose “is definitely one that we absolutely love,” Stoops said, also mentioning defensive back Davonte Robinson of Henry Clay and former Woodford County standout Drake Jackson, an offensive lineman, as “guys that probably could have played some this year.”
That 2016 class, ranked No. 29 by Rivals.com, features several big-name players that sat out this season and likely will help UK next season, including four-star players like Jackson and fellow offensive lineman Tate Leavitt.
Others who sat out this season include, on offense: running back Rose, quarterback Gunnar Hoak (a three-star from Dublin, Ohio); wide receivers Zy’Aire Hughes (a three-star from Paducah); 6-foot-7 Dakota Holtzclaw (a three-star from Worthington, Ohio); offensive linemen Jackson and Luke Fortner (a three-star from Sylvania, Ohio).
On defense, there was Robinson along with fellow DB Tobias Gilliam (a three-star from Huber Heights, Ohio); linebackers Jamar Watson (a two-star from Forestville, Md.) and Roland Walder (a three-star from Trotwood, Ohio); defensive tackles Ja’Quize Cross (a two-star from New Market, Ala.) and Kordell Looney (a three-star from Springfield, Ohio) as well as defensive end Jaylin Bannerman (a three-star from Pickerington, Ohio).
Those players will benefit from the extra practice time a bowl game guarantees, Stoops said.
Kentucky will treat the practices leading up to the bowl game as a second spring practice, which benefits the younger players especially.
“Fundamentally we would work hard on getting things corrected that we didn’t do as well as we’d liked throughout this season and getting some younger guys a lot of reps, in particular the guys that have redshirted,” Stoops said. “So it’s really important. I think just for the morale and for the reps, for the practice.”
For the past two seasons, Kentucky has needed to beat Louisville to win its sixth game and go to a bowl game. And for the past two seasons, the Cats haven’t been able to do that.
Stoops, whose team clinched a bowl trip Saturday with the win over the Governors, was asked if it was a relief to not have the bowl hanging over UK’s heads going into the big rivalry game.
“I don’t know if it’s relief, but certainly it’s better,” he said. “There’s no denying that. Wish we were sitting at seven or eight (wins), but definitely a better situation.”
The head coach said he had no preference for UK’s final destination this season.
“Our administration will fight to put us in the best situation we can for our fans,” he said. “We’ll be happy to go somewhere.”
And as for reports of Stoops dancing in the postgame locker room, the coach said those were exaggerated.
“I really didn’t bust a move,” he said. “Not really. I get in there and Boom (Williams) was on my chair. I usually stand up and address the team and Boom was up there dancing, so I just let him go. He looked a lot better than me.”
A few extras
At least one Southeastern Conference team this season has been reportedly using former players on the scout team, which led to Stoops asking if he’d been in contact with any ex-Cats to join the fun.
“That’s a good idea,” he said. “We’ll get Moe (Williams) dressed up today (laughter). I’ll tell him to go get his ankles taped. The players would like that.”
Williams, the former star UK running back who spent 10 seasons in the NFL, is back on campus this season as a student assistant coach with the running backs while he finishes his degree.
▪ Stoops, his wife and their children stood with wide receiver Alexander Montgomery at his Senior Day celebration on Saturday. The junior opted to forgo his final season of eligibility after suffering a third major knee injury.
“His grandma was not able to come, and so we have been very close with Alex and he’s a remarkable young man and I’m excited to have him come work with me next year,” Stoops said of Montgomery, who will become a student assistant coach next season.
Kentucky at Louisville
Noon Saturday (ESPN)