Kentucky’s quarterback is almost unrecognizable with his new closely-cropped cut.
“I’ve been wanting to cut it for about three months now,” Stephen Johnson said of his new hairstyle before discussing UK’s upcoming Music City Bowl trip. “I always said after the Louisville game I was going to take some scissors to it.”
It’s a fresh look for a quarterback who is looking for a little bit of a fresh start.
Before the Mississippi State game at the midway point of the season, Johnson was connecting on 63.9 percent of his passes for 1,238 yards and nine touchdowns.
But that hasn’t been the story during the second part of the season when Johnson has thrown just one touchdown in the last six games while completing just 56.8 percent of his passes.
It has been a source of frustration for Johnson.
“My play obviously wasn’t that good,” he said. “And that’s something that I have to work on.”
Johnson was especially discouraged by his performance in the last two games at Georgia and against Louisville.
“He was disappointed in some of the throws he made and some of the guys that were open that he missed,” co-offensive coordinator Darin Hinshsaw said. “That’s part of playing quarterback.”
But there’s no clear answer for why the senior has struggled.
There has been some tacit acknowledgment that Johnson hasn’t been at 100 percent health-wise.
Right after the Louisville loss, when Johnson completed just eight of his 19 pass attempts for 110 yards, head coach Mark Stoops was asked if the quarterback was at full strength.
“I can’t answer that exactly,” the head coach said. “I mean, going into the game he was OK. ... I’m sure, bruised and banged up a bit.”
Some time away for Johnson helped, Stoops said recently. “He’s healing up and needed some time off and getting some rest and ready to go.”
There’s definitely something to the injuries piling up for the Kentucky quarterback, Hinshaw said on Friday night after the Cats began their bowl prep.
“You think about the Tennessee game when he couldn’t even move his left arm,” Hinshaw said of Johnson’s 6-for-15 passing day for 46 total yards that also included him running in a score. “That affects your throwing motion and some things and some of his targets down the road. He was a little beat up, but at the same (time) he made some big plays in those games.”
In the Ole Miss game — where he had his only passing touchdown in the past six games — Johnson played well and gave UK a chance to win it.
Not all of the struggles are on Johnson, obviously.
There has been less emphasis on the pass in recent weeks. Offensive coordinator Eddie Gran said the goal is to be 50-50 as an offense, but UK has run the ball 64.6 percent of the time in its last six games as Benny Snell has reasserted himself. In the first six games, the Cats were running it on 58.7 percent of plays.
On his coaches’ show last week, Stoops also acknowledged that the lack of a deep threat has limited Johnson’s yardage and that the loss of players such as Jeff Badet, who graduated and transferred to Oklahoma after last season, and Dorian Baker, who missed the season with an ankle injury, has limited the Cats’ options.
“You lose both of those guys and that leaves a lot of concentration on (Garrett Johnson) inside and that speed,” Stoops said. “We lost some production from that. We’ve got to get some explosive guys outside.”
Kentucky believes it has those in Isaiah Epps and Josh Ali, two true freshmen who are still figuring out the nuances of their position.
“They were freshmen,” Stoops said last week. “That’s why we’ve got to have a good bowl practice and continue to develop those guys. They can go. They can run. We’ve got to get them to make some explosive plays.”
Northwestern, UK’s opponent on Dec. 29 in Nashville, has one of the nation’s elite run defenses, but the Wildcats are No. 100 in pass defense. Northwestern is giving up 247.6 yards per game.
But it’s high risk-high reward with those Wildcats allowing 18 touchdowns through the air, but picking off 15 balls, good enough for top-20 nationally.
Johnson is going to have to get better — and be better — quickly.
“I’m not happy at all with the way I’ve played these last few games,” the quarterback said. “So to get this last bowl game to prove to myself again and everyone else that I can play football.”
Music City Bowl
Kentucky vs. Northwestern
When: 4:30 p.m. EST Dec. 29
Where: Nissan Stadium, Nashville
Records: UK 7-5; Northwestern 9-3