UK Football

Kentucky QB Johnson ‘gives you some real peace when you know that he’s back there’

Kentucky quarterback Stephen Johnson passed for a career-high 338 yards and three touchdowns while running eight times for 83 yards against Louisville on Saturday.
Kentucky quarterback Stephen Johnson passed for a career-high 338 yards and three touchdowns while running eight times for 83 yards against Louisville on Saturday. mcornelison@herald-leader.com

There are times when Darin Hinshaw is ready to pick up the phone and scream.

In the heat of the game, he sees his quarterback throw into double coverage and get picked off. Kentucky’s co-offensive coordinator has some choice words ready to fire.

On the other end of the call, a steady voice says: “Coach, I just threw a really bad pass.”

It’s the calming, dulcet tones of UK’s Stephen Johnson. As first-year Southeastern Conference quarterbacks are sometimes apt to do, Johnson has made a mistake.

He owns it. Immediately.

“Stephen Johnson is one of the most honest human beings,” Hinshaw said of the quarterback. “I mean, he’ll tell me exactly what happened.”

There’s no blaming teammates or the called play. There are no curse words, no thrown tantrums.

“He already knows what I did wrong,” Johnson explained of the back-and-forth with his position coach. “Letting him know that I know what I did wrong really helps out.”

As a former fiery quarterback himself, Hinshaw admits that he struggled a bit with Johnson’s calm, casual demeanor at first.

Does he want a more emotive quarterback? “I do,” Hinshaw admitted last week.

But the coach has learned something along the way — perhaps in part from Johnson — that not every player fits the mold. Not every quarterback is going to be a boisterous, natural-born leader with an ego the size of his arm.

“I never ever want them to be somebody they’re not,” Hinshaw said. “So I say, ‘Look, if you don’t want to get excited over something, that’s fine.’ … It’s the same thing when things go wrong. He doesn’t let it affect him at all, which is good because it affects me sometimes where I’m going a little crazy.”

It’s meant a more open, honest dialogue about what the quarterback sees from his perspective, which often is different than Hinshaw’s angle high above the field.

The give-and-take, the back-and-forth, the throw-and-catch have all grown at Kentucky as has the Cats’ quarterback, who took over the position after starter Drew Barker injured his back early this season.

Since taking over early in the third game, Johnson has guided the Cats to seven wins and just three losses (one at top-ranked and Southeastern Conference West champion Alabama, one at SEC East champ Florida, and a 27-24 loss to Georgia).

Johnson, the transfer from College of the Desert in California, has thrown for 1,862 yards and 12 touchdowns (six interceptions) at a 54.5 percent clip this season.

Not Player of the Year numbers per se, but he’s become a player at the right time for Kentucky because of how steady he is and how strong of a communicator he is.

“He’s really gotten to the point now where he’s learned from his mistakes,” Hinshaw said after the Louisville victory in which Johnson threw for a career-high 338 yards and three touchdowns while running eight times for 83 yards.

Johnson has run 83 times for 278 yards and two touchdowns, and the threat of him running — as he did several times on third down against Louisville — makes UK harder to defend.

“Stephen did a great job of knowing when to tuck the ball away and run,” said co-offensive coordinator Eddie Gran, whose group converted on 55.6 percent of its third downs in that win.

After his career day, Johnson was no different when he picked up the phone to talk with Hinshaw than he was in games when he was struggling.

That’s the sign of an emotionally strong, humble player, UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart said of Johnson.

“His emotional presence is unbelievable,” Barnhart said after the win over Louisville. “He’s never too high; he’s never too low. He’s really steady. … Gives you some real peace when you know that he’s back there.”

The 6-foot-3, 183-pound junior from Rancho Cucamonga, said a few weeks ago that peace was probably the “California cool” people were seeing in him.

But it’s deeper than that for the kid who grew up battling Tourette syndrome, something he said he overcame through prayer and support from his family.

“The main thing was that it just humbled me,” he explained, of battling the illness, this week on the “Paul Finebaum Show.” “It really got me down to where I know that I’m not ‘the man.’ I shouldn’t be the center of attention all the time.

“It really humbled me to where I know I can lead a team by example and not just be the rah-rah guy all the time. It just humbled me to where I can lead a team by example.”

And what an example he can be, his coaches said.

Not once has Gran seen Johnson get distressed.

“I’ve been asked that question a lot about him and he doesn’t get rattled about anything,” Gran said. “He doesn’t get overexcited when things are going good. It’s just back to the next series, next play. So you love that in a quarterback.”

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