Exactly a year ago, a quarterback at a junior college in the Southern California desert was coming off his third straight loss.
After struggling in all three games, completing just 52.8 percent of his passes with five interceptions, Stephen Johnson was trying to find a way to help College of the Desert earn its first win.
He never could have pondered that a year later he’d be more than 2,000 miles away in Lexington, coming off one of the most important games of his career as Kentucky’s quarterback.
“I knew a little bit about the program, but I didn’t know much about the coaches and the players, but I definitely didn’t think I’d be here,” Johnson said in January once he’d enrolled at UK in hopes of competing with Drew Barker for the starting spot.
Rewind a few months before and a clearer picture of a calm, fast-learning, perfectionist of a quarterback starts to emerge.
After struggling in those first three losses for College of the Desert, Johnson went back to work.
Behind its versatile quarterback, the Roadrunners won six of their next seven games with Johnson completing 60.9 percent of his passes and averaging 355 yards a game. He had 30 passing touchdowns and just two interceptions. He added seven rushing TDs.
He’s a very conscientious kid; he works extremely hard; he wants to perform well for his team and he has some talent. So you knew he’d be good, but to see him play that well, I don’t know if I saw that coming.
UK head coach Mark Stoops, on Stephen Johnson
After Saturday’s UK victory over New Mexico State in which Johnson completed 77 percent of his passes for 310 yards and three touchdowns, the quarterback only seemed partially pleased with his play.
“I’m my own greatest critic,” the speedy 6-foot-2, 185-pound quarterback said. “I wanna go 100-for-100 completions and have no incompletions at all and execute everything perfectly. Have every perfect pass, but it went pretty well I guess.”
He admitted to having jitters early in the New Mexico State game, noting that the first two incomplete passes were on him.
“I had to just settle down, trust in the playmakers I have on the field, have on this team,” said Johnson, who also rushed 10 times for 51 more yards.
Even head coach Mark Stoops admitted he didn’t see that game coming from Johnson.
“We knew he’d shown signs in practice of being very efficient at running the offense,” Stoops said Wednesday to preview UK’s game against South Carolina. “He’s a very conscientious kid; he works extremely hard; he wants to perform well for his team and he has some talent. So you knew he’d be good, but to see him play that well, I don’t know if I saw that coming.”
Take away Johnson’s first series and he was near quarterback nirvana, completing 85 percent of his passes the rest of the way over New Mexico State.
“He went out there and just operated the offense and was very comfortable and very poised and efficient,” Stoops said of the junior-college transfer, who will take over UK’s quarterback duties for the foreseeable future with Barker ruled out with a back injury.
So much more than time zones have changed for Johnson since this time last year when he was trying to find his groove in the California desert.
One of the first things that he had to get ironed out was a dip in his throwing motion.
UK quarterbacks coach Darin Hinshaw saw it immediately in the pile of film he watched on Johnson. Fortunately, Johnson had a quarterbacks coach in California who had film from almost every angle. So Hinshaw was clear on what the problems were.
“I had all those drills and I was able to see all the different angles of his motion,” Hinshaw said in February.
That kind of throw hitch doesn’t cause big problems in high school or in junior college, but it can spell disaster in the Southeastern Conference.
So Hinshaw and Johnson began working on the quarterback’s release when he arrived in January. The dip is nonexistent now.
“Now it’s finally paying off because it takes a long time to do that, but it’s just in time because he’s really, really throwing the ball well,” Hinshaw said.
Making the alteration in a throwing motion he’s had since he was a kid and the muscle memory that comes with that wasn’t easy.
“It was quite hard, actually,” Johnson said. “That’s a habit that I’ve always had. Drop the ball, bring it back up and throw. Working with Coach Hinshaw, we got all the kinks out to make my release a little bit faster and more accurate as well.”
Even in fall camp, Johnson struggled some with control.
“He’s got to quit throwing the ball over wide receivers’ heads,” Hinshaw said of Johnson in August. “His arm sometimes is not even with his body. He needs to relax and complete those balls.
“He can run and do all of those things, but there are situations where he’s got to be able to throw and complete it.”
He was just confident and relaxed and ready to show us what he had.
UK center Jon Toth, on Stephen Johnson’s performance last Saturday
That didn’t seem to be a problem Saturday against New Mexico State when Johnson connected on a pretty bomb down the middle of the field to Jeff Badet for 54 yards.
“A lot of guys have those jitters here and there, but he never had a problem with me throwing the deep ball,” Badet said of the QB.
None of Johnson’s other teammates on the offense saw him flinch when he made his way into the game.
Center Jon Toth said: “He was just confident and relaxed and ready to show us what he had.”
But there’s a much bigger challenge for Johnson looming Saturday against South Carolina. The Gamecocks are holding opponents to 17.3 points a game, among the top 30 nationally. They have allowed just four passing touchdowns and picked off three passes in the first three games.
There will be some new plays in place for Johnson and the UK offense going into the game, but game planning will happen on the other side of the ball, too.
“They’re going to bring some wrinkles at him,” Hinshaw said of South Carolina. “So again, he’s got to come in with the mindset of taking it one play at a time like we talk about all the time.”
That shouldn’t be too hard for a player who knows from experience just how dramatically things can change in a year.
South Carolina at Kentucky
7:30 p.m. (SEC Network)