Tis the season to be jolly.
But this time a year ago, Stephen Johnson was filled with worry.
The quarterback had just finished his time at College of the Desert, a junior college near his hometown in California, and he was stuck.
“Sitting around around Christmas I wasn’t too happy with the options I had with schools,” he said. “It was really kinda like a humbling moment.”
Johnson talked with his parents, agonizing over decisions he’d made to leave Grambling after playing sparingly in 2014 and transferring to junior college.
“I was just really at home working out ’cause our juco season was over with,” said Johnson, who had just been named the Mountain American Conference’s Offensive Player of the Year.
He had no idea of the events transpiring at Kentucky that ultimately would take him more than 2,100 miles to a school that wasn’t even on his radar.
This time a year ago, UK Coach Mark Stoops was overhauling an offense that had just spent a season under Shannon Dawson.
The head coach was trying to woo old friend and cohort Eddie Gran away from Cincinnati, along with quarterbacks coach Darin Hinshaw, to revamp the Cats’ offense, which probably would be led by its only returning quarterback with any experience in Drew Barker.
In the final days of 2015 as Johnson waited and worried, pondering his football future, the Cincinnati coaches agreed to come to Kentucky, and Hinshaw immediately started looking for options at quarterback.
“When I got here with Coach Stoops, I said, ‘We probably need to get another guy in here to have the right competition, the right numbers to go compete,’” Hinshaw said in January after the contracts were made official.
He scoured tape looking for options. Hinshaw got a late start, so his choices were more limited than he would have liked.
“The thing about quarterbacks, too, is I’m a guy that details them,” the coach said on Jan. 14.
“This is like finding your wife,” Hinshaw continued. “OK, there’s a lot of pretty ones out there, but at the end of the day I’m looking for certain things. You only get one shot most of the time to bring in one guy one year, and you don’t want to mess it up.”
That interview was the same day Johnson was visiting UK’s campus, suddenly feeling less humbled by his lack of choices and more sure of his future.
“As soon as I landed here it was just a different atmosphere,” Johnson said recently. “Everybody that I spoke to was extremely kind to me and it seemed like they really, really wanted me here.”
Hinshaw certainly wanted Johnson, who threw for 3,210 yards and 34 touchdowns while rushing for 429 yards and eight more scores at College of the Desert.
“He talked to a lot of people that touched Stephen, and I think he did a fantastic job of trying to get him up here in a short period of time,” Gran said of Hinshaw, whom he called “a bulldog” in his pursuit of the 6-foot-3, 183-pound quarterback who had limited offers at the time, including one from Hawaii and another from Arkansas State.
Other than the kind words nearly every person close to Johnson had to say about the calm, soft-spoken junior, Hinshaw also was able to watch loads of film on the quarterback courtesy of his personal position coach, who documented all of it.
“I was lucky because he works him out all the time, so I had all those drills and I was able to see all the different angles of his motion and I really like Stephen Johnson,” Hinshaw told the Herald-Leader on signing day in February.
That footage of Johnson displayed many of the things that have made him a winner at Kentucky.
After Barker went down with a season-ending back injury, Johnson took over and led UK to wins in seven of its last 10 games, including one over then-No. 11 Louisville that propelled the Cats to the TaxSlayer Bowl on Dec. 31.
In his first season, Johnson has passed for 1,862 yards and 12 touchdowns and has rushed for 278 yards and two more scores.
“He always found a way to put us in position to win games,” Stoops said of his quarterback. “That’s the bottom line for a quarterback. He made good decisions and again made some timely plays whether it be a scramble or a designed quarterback run or a throw that created some big plays.
“He certainly improved as the season went on, so we’re excited about Stephen and we’ll need these practices to keep on improving, but we like what we see out of him and it starts with his poise and his leadership.”
It’s been a wild ride for the player who was in his family’s living room worried about his future as holiday joy swirled around him exactly a year ago.
“It was a tough time,” he said of the uncertainty of those weeks. “Me and my mom talked about it the other day, sitting around at Christmas, really just kind of upset. … But go a year from then and I’m really happy with how it all unfolded.”
Kentucky vs. Georgia Tech
When: 11 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 31
Where: EverBank Field in Jacksonville, Fla.
Records: Kentucky 7-5, Georgia Tech 8-4