Stephen Johnson goes from sub to star
In a bit of good fortune, Kentucky backup quarterback Stephen Johnson II had his entire immediate family in the Commonwealth Stadium stands Saturday.
Not only were the Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., product’s parents Stephen and Paula on hand, but so were his sister, Sydney, and brother, Shane.
“I believe it’s the first time I’d seen all four of them together since summer or spring,” the junior-college transfer said. “It was good.”
Actually, for the Johnson family, it was way better than good.
Taking over for an injured Drew Barker (back) after Kentucky’s first offensive series, the 6-foot-3, 183-pound Johnson II delivered a head-turning performance.
Johnson boosted Kentucky with his arm, completing 17 of 22 passes for 310 yards and three touchdowns. He gave UK an extra dimension with his legs, running 10 times for 51 yards.
With Johnson at the controls, Kentucky amassed a whopping 692 yards of offense and outgunned New Mexico State 62-42 to earn UK’s first victory of 2016 before a rain-drenched crowd announced at 49,699.
“I thought it was a good thing to see Stephen come in a play the way he did with Drew getting hurt,” Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops said afterward. “It was really good.”
Johnson, who began his college career at Grambling before playing at the College of the Desert last season, said leading a late TD drive in UK’s 45-7 loss at Florida last week helped him Saturday.
“At the beginning I was a little bit nervous,” Johnson said. “Once I hit the field, all that went away. I do think the exposure I got last week, in front of those (Florida) fans and that crowd, helped me this week in front of the BBN.”
With Johnson at QB, the Kentucky offense looked like what many — well, me — had expected from the start in 2016.
UK relied on its running game, with both junior Boom Williams (188 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries) and true freshman Benny Snell (137 yards, four TDs on 17 carries) turning in monster performances.
Johnson, the kind of mobile, read-option-running QB that has historically given Kentucky defenses fits, only added to the ground threat.
The powerful running game allowed Kentucky to employ a number of run-pass-option reads for Johnson. The QB made heavy use of UK’s here-to-fore missing tight ends, with sophomore C.J. Conrad enjoying a career game (five catches, 133 yards, three TD catches).
Eddie Gran, Kentucky’s assistant head coach for offense, said Johnson’s on-field presence may have been the most impressive thing about his performance.
“I love his demeanor,” Gran said. “He was prepared and ready to go when we called his name, he was not fazed at all. And I thought he did a real good job with his reads. The RPOs were good, we kept it mixed up.”
Said Stoops: “(Johnson) has a lot of poise. And that we need right now.”
Keeping things real, in New Mexico State, Kentucky was playing a Sun Belt Conference team and a program looking for its first winning season since 2002.
So there will be far better defenses coming in the weeks ahead that Kentucky (1-2, 0-1 SEC) must face. That will start next Saturday when Will Muschamp and South Carolina (2-1, 1-1) invade Commonwealth Stadium.
Still, even with that disclaimer, it’s hard to see how UK doesn’t stay with Johnson at QB next week regardless of Barker’s health status.
“I’m not going to make a decision like that right now, obviously,” Stoops said in his postgame news conference. “I have no idea (on Barker’s availability). He’s hurt. He has an injured back. He did go to the hospital to get it examined today.”
For his part, Johnson said he was not going to worry about who Kentucky’s starting QB will be next week until next week.
After all, he had family in town. Stephen Johnson II’s parents and siblings got to see him turn in a gem of a performance in his first extended playing time at Kentucky.
“Tonight, I’m just going to enjoy this with my family,” Johnson said. “Then, next week, I’ll just prepare like I’m going to be the starter whatever (the coaches) decide.”