Players dipped chicken tenders in sauce, took pictures and made fun of each other’s golf swings.
A few fun hours at TopGolf Jacksonville was part of the week leading up to the TaxSlayer Bowl last December. Kentucky’s players mingled, but for the most part, they mostly seemed to hang out with players in their own position groups.
In small gathering areas behind each tee, wide receivers messed with each other, defensive backs cracked jokes and offensive linemen huddled up.
One of the few exceptions to the position-centered clusters was Stephen Johnson.
The Cats quarterback mingled effortlessly among the groups that day, moving from tee to tee, talking with everyone from freshmen to seniors, from walk-ons to stars.
Johnson was everywhere.
“That’s Stephen,” running back Benny Snell said when the scenario was brought up this week. “He’s one of those guys. He’s a people person.”
The 6-foot-2, 185-pound junior-college transfer has a way about him. Teammates and coaches can’t really pinpoint exactly what it is, but they all are fans of the senior and not just because the Cats are 12-5 with him as their primary quarterback.
“You have to start with his leadership, No. 1,” Coach Mark Stoops said of Johnson on Monday night. “He’s just such a special kid. He has one of those personalities where he’s a leader without really trying to have to be because everybody just looks up to him.”
They look up to him for good reason, offensive coordinator Darin Hinshaw said of the player from Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., whom he said has “good charisma about him.
“There’s also just keeping your mouth shut and going to work,” he said. “There’s something about that, too. He goes to work every day.”
All of that equates to a team that wants to play for its quarterback, senior offensive lineman Nick Haynes said.
“He’s just a good guy,” Haynes said. “I hang out with him all the time and he’s just a good dude. You want to play for somebody like that. That’s all it is.”
“You watch him take hits and he doesn’t yell at anybody,” Haynes said. “If I was taking those hits, I’d yell at everybody on the offensive line. He doesn’t yell or anything. He says, ‘We’ll be all right.’ … Stephen’s perfect to me. I wouldn’t trade him for anybody else.”
If you’re a wide receiver who wants more catches, Johnson stays after practice to work with you.
Johnson ranks fourth in the league in total offense (230.3 yards) and is fifth in passing yards per game at 206.3. He’s thrown or rushed for a score in nine of the last 10 games.
If you’re a center who is having problems with snaps, Johnson stays after practice to work with you. If you’re a tight end that the quarterback has struggled to connect with on a specific play, Johnson will work with you all summer to get it right.
“This is what I’m here for,” Johnson said about all that extra work with teammates. “Just getting extra snaps with Bunchy (Stallings), getting extra throws with Garrett (Johnson) and all the other receivers.
“Just going through plays. We have a limited time of practice. The extra we can get just helps us out in the game.”
All the extra work has paid off for Johnson, too.
The Cats quarterback is completing 63.9 percent of his passes this season, third best in the Southeastern Conference and nearly 10 percentage points better than his rate last season.
That number could get even higher, Hinshaw said.
“He’s missing some throws, what I call duck throws, easy throws,” he said of Johnson, who has connected on 99 of his 155 passes for 1,238 yards and nine touchdowns.
“His feet get a little bit out of whack, but he’s doing a good job of picking up defenses when we need him to. His medium-range passes have gotten a lot more accurate. If he continues to improve in the second half of the season, it will be a big boost for us.”
You have to admire the way he’s taking care of the football this year. Ball security was an issue for him a year ago. He has some experience under his belt and he came back this year and it was vitally important to him and our team and the program to take care of the football and he’s done that.
Mark Stoops, on QB Stephen Johnson
The senior ranks fourth in the league in total offense (230.3 yards) and is fifth in passing yards per game at 206.3. He’s thrown or rushed for a score in nine of the last 10 games.
In UK’s last nine games, Johnson has 15 touchdown passes to just three interceptions. Through six games, he hasn’t lost a fumble after coughing up six last season.
“You have to admire the way he’s taking care of the football this year,” Stoops said. “Ball security was an issue for him a year ago. He has some experience under his belt and he came back this year and it was vitally important to him and our team and the program to take care of the football and he’s done that.”
While much of the chatter this week going into the game at Mississippi State will be on Bulldogs star quarterback Nick Fitzgerald, Johnson is a handful to defend, too.
The senior quarterback will see how he stacks up against a Mississippi State defense that is eighth nationally, giving up just 284.8 total yards a game. The Bulldogs are permitting 155 yards passing per game, fourth best in the country.
They’ll have a test with Johnson, Coach Dan Mullen said this week.
“He’s understanding his offense, and understanding his reads,” Mullen said of UK’s quarterback, who has four runs of 20-plus yards this season and two scores on the ground.
“He is a great athlete and can make plays with his feet, but also has the maturity of knowing when not to. Younger guys sometimes make plays with their feet first and then they learn how to throw second. He seems to have that balance and understanding of what they are trying to accomplish.”
Kentucky at Mississippi St.
4 p.m. (SEC Network)