Perfect posture, slight smile, straightforward answers to sometimes convoluted questions.
Even with a horde of reporters around him at Southeastern Conference Media Days, Kentucky’s Stephen Johnson was the picture of everything his head coach had just said about him.
“Calm” and “poised” was how Mark Stoops described the senior, one of three UK player representatives at the annual kickoff event.
Enveloped on almost every side, queries coming in rapid succession, Johnson seemed comfortable and at ease.
Never miss a local story.
But it had been quite a journey to get to this calm, easy place for a California kid who battled Tourette’s syndrome until he was a teenager.
“It’s divine how it’s all come about, where I started at and where I’m sitting now with a bunch of cameras on me,” he said when asked about the seeming ease of it all. “So growing up I really couldn’t expect this. Dreamed of it all the time, couldn’t expect it. I’m really happy with how things are going right now.”
Life is going well for Johnson, who took over the Cats’ starting job after Drew Barker went down with a season-ending back injury. The junior college transfer helped guide UK to victories in seven of its final 10 games.
Even though it didn’t beat Georgia Tech in its first bowl game since 2010, Kentucky gained positive momentum going into the offseason and this upcoming season.
Like most adversity in his life, Johnson sees that loss as a blessing in disguise. The quarterback, who said coaches have told him he’s the starter for the first game, acknowledged that maybe the team got too high on itself after the win over Louisville.
The 33-18 loss to Georgia Tech in the TaxSlayer Bowl was a good reminder for the team of how hard it needs to work in the offseason if it wants to be a factor in the SEC, Johnson said.
“Our thing is just being more consistent; that starts with me personally,” he said. “Not turning the ball over, being able to extend drives and finish with either three points or six points. Personally, I had too many turnovers, that’s one thing for sure. But consistency on the offensive side is our main thing.”
Johnson, who was tied for second nationally in fumbles lost with six last season, has been working to make his hands, wrists and forearms stronger.
That has included carrying plate weights on his fingertips in the UK weight room all offseason.
“When you first do it, it’s tough because our weight room is enormous, so trying to walk around the weight room with that in your hands, you’ll drop it a few times,” he laughed.
“It burns your hands like you’ve never had. You don’t usually work out your hands like that. It’s like any workout, but doing it with your hands. It’s tough after a while.”
The player who managed to go last season without a pick in the fourth quarter or the red zone wants to be perfect in the turnover category, and he’s working hard at it.
“He’s constantly trying to learn and get better, and that’s what we’re looking for,” Stoops said of Johnson. “So he’s very critical from — of himself, but he’s also very poised and very confident.”
Johnson, who was middle of the road in the league in pass efficiency (54.7 percent), has been working hard to improve that number and cut down on his six interceptions.
“Not turning ball over and getting the ball to playmakers and getting the ball down field,” he rattled off his summer to-do list. “If you can do those three things well, then you’ll be a really good quarterback in the SEC and in the nation.”
The quarterback position is one that requires good instincts and those are developed over time and through practice. So the more Johnson works at his craft, the more pleased the Cats coaches are with him.
“If you watched some of our close games last year, some of our victories, he made critical plays by any means necessary,” Stoops said of Johnson, who threw for 2,037 yards and 13 touchdowns while rushing for three more.
“And that’s a winner. Whether he pulled it down and ran or scrambled to buy time to throw the ball down the field or just be efficient and improving his passing game, his accuracy, all those things. He’s a good player. Stephen will tell you he’s got a lot of work to do to improve, and he intends to do that this summer.”
(Home games in all capital letters; Game times listed where available.)
Sept. 2: At Southern Mississippi, 4
Sept. 9: EASTERN KENTUCKY
Sept. 16: At South Carolina
Sept. 23: FLORIDA
Sept. 30: EASTERN MICHIGAN
Oct. 7: MISSOURI
Oct. 21: At Mississippi St.
Oct. 28: TENNESSEE
Nov. 4: MISSISSIPPI
Nov. 11: At Vanderbilt
Nov. 18: At Georgia
Nov. 25: LOUISVILLE
x-At Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis