The play has looked so effortless lately that it’s almost like brothers playing catch in the backyard on a sunny summer afternoon.
Kentucky’s Stephen Johnson lofts the ball far down the field and the receiver catches it and heads toward the end zone in one seamless, fluid motion.
But those deep throws, a couple that equaled touchdowns in the Cats’ last game against Louisville, aren’t quite as simple as they look.
“We work a lot at it,” Kentucky quarterbacks coach Darin Hinshaw said of Johnson’s ability to make that deep throw and catch look easy.
“He has really mastered (it) to get the angle of the receiver and then to be able to throw it to a spot and understand where that intersection point is, because that’s the key to throwing the ball deep.”
Not every signal caller can do it either.
“A lot of quarterbacks can’t figure that out and that’s why you see them miss or the receiver has to sway back and forth,” Hinshaw continued after the Louisville game, which saw Johnson connect on two touchdown passes of 50-plus yards, that’s one more than UK had in the previous eight games combined.
There’s even more to it than Hinshaw’s angles and intersections.
The way that the coaches set it up plays a huge role as well, Johnson said.
“It’s just a good play,” said Johnson, who was seen smiling and extolling the virtues of that play out of the huddle on the opening play against the Cardinals that went for a 75-yard score to Garrett Johnson.
“Our run game sets that up really, really well … sucks up those linebackers and safeties to allow Jeff (Badet) or (Garrett Johnson) or anyone else to run behind the corners.”
The wide receivers do their share, too.
Coaches tell that position group to get up on the defensive back early and “put some type of fear into him,” wide receivers coach Lamar Thomas explained.
“We have some guys that have some pretty good speed, so once we get up to them, we step on their toes, make them have to transition out of the turns.”
Some defensive backs are excellent at back-pedaling, but have trouble with tight turns. UK tries to take advantage of that by going at those players quickly.
“We can put pressure on them and once we do that, they’re ours,” Thomas said.
Not all of them have been actual deep passes, but Kentucky is in the top 25 nationally in passing plays of 40 or more yards with 14 so far this season, with a TaxSlayer Bowl on Saturday versus Georgia Tech still to go.
The Cats are tied for ninth in the country on pass plays of 60 or more yards with five. (One of the teams UK is tied with in that stat is the Yellow Jackets.)
Two of Kentucky’s key deep ball threats this season, Badet and Garrett Johnson, are especially adept at shaking corners at just the right time.
“Just getting on the corner’s toes and creating separation,” Badet said when asked about the play that’s helped him get seven catches of 40 or more yards this season, including four for scores. “That’s what makes it work, being able to get open.”
For Garrett Johnson, who has had seven catches for 20-plus yards this season and has turned five of them into touchdowns, the key to the long ball is focus.
“Watch it all the way in until the tuck,” he said. “Those deep balls are the hardest ones. They’re in the air for forever. So you’re running down the field just thinking about all that. You’ve got to just lock in and understand what’s going in and try to lock in on that play.”
Both Badet and Johnson credit their quarterback with making it all look easy.
“Stephen is an exceptional player on the deep pass,” said Badet, one of Johnson’s earliest targets on the deep passes. “I don’t ever think I’ve seen somebody throw the deep ball how he does. He’s really good at it.”
The receiving end of the Johnson and Johnson connection said the quarterback has “great touch on the ball.
“Everybody’s able to see that,” Garrett Johnson said. “It’s not too hard, not too soft, it’s just right. Then Stephen he’s able to adjust to defenders. He’s always putting us in the right positions.”
And while Johnson’s long ball “has been unbelievable” in the last few games, as offensive coordinator Eddie Gran said recently, Kentucky’s coaches might have been more excited by some key — and often clutch — mid-range throws that he made in the win over Louisville.
Those completions are a sign to them that the offense is slowing down for the junior college quarterback, who has started in just eight games for Kentucky this season.
“He’s getting more and more comfortable in the pocket and he’s understanding when I tell him don’t panic if the first read’s not there,” Hinshaw explained.
“He knows when to scramble. He’s really making it hard on defenses now to defend. And again, he continues to make those decisions, we’re going to continue to be good.”
Some quarterbacks are able to get those mid-range throws quickly, others struggle with the long ball.
Either way, Gran now sees it all starting to come together for Johnson.
“When you know where to go with the ball quickly, I think everything is right,” the offensive coordinator said. “There’s a lot of things technique-wise that he gets better at when he knows where to go with it. … He’s just going to continue to get better, and if he does that he’s got a chance to be a pretty darn good.”
Kentucky vs. Georgia Tech
When: 11 a.m. Saturday
Where: EverBank Field in Jacksonville, Fla.
Records: Kentucky 7-5, Georgia Tech 8-4