While the story of Stephen Johnson had a sort of storybook feel to it, the opening paragraphs of that story could have been written in the scrawl of a preschooler with a cast on his wrist.
Sure, the Kentucky quarterback came from junior college to lead the Cats to back-to-back bowl games and multiple Southeastern Conference wins.
But that would’ve been difficult to predict when he arrived on campus in January 2016. Coaches tried to act confident about the transfer, but there were plenty of wrinkles to straighten out along the way.
“People forget when Stephen was first here, there was not a whole lot of good things being said,” co-offensive coordinator Darin Hinshaw said. “He had a learning curve. It took him all fall (camp). In fall camp, he wasn’t even there.”
His old quarterbacks coach isn’t throwing barbs at Johnson out of spite, but as an example of how a quarterback can grow in a short period of time.
Hinshaw uses Johnson’s early struggles as a way to say to his current quarterbacks: It’s a process.
Neither sophomore Gunnar Hoak nor junior-college transfer Terry Wilson had a particularly good first full scrimmage for Kentucky on Saturday at Kroger Field.
“The worst grades I’ve given a quarterback in a long time for both Terry and for Gunnar,” Hinshaw said. “It wasn’t just one of them had a bad day. They both did.”
Passing percentages decreased significantly Saturday. There were turnovers. Wilson keeps creeping up into the pocket instead of staying in one place.
If there was a list of quarterback don’ts, the duo checked off all the boxes during the scrimmage.
Watching it live and then again on film was a good reminder for Hinshaw and offensive coordinator Eddie Gran that things aren’t always pretty when breaking in a new quarterback.
“We’ve all got to remind ourselves to go back and remember where Stephen Johnson was at this time,” Gran said. “Everybody was like, ‘Whew. Not quite sure.’
“I’ve just got to remind myself to kind of mellow out and there’s going to be some growing pains and it’s going to be OK.”
Part of the problem in the weekend scrimmage was the lack of urgency from the players around Hoak and Wilson, who are splitting the first-team reps pretty evenly now.
“Everybody else has to pick it up,” Gran said of the urgency issue. “That’s where our offensive line that are more experienced have to bring that energy and that juice. I’m tired of talking about youth at receiver, OK? We have no more youth at receiver. They are veterans now. It’s time to drop and it’s time to go.”
The learning curve has been steep, Wilson admitted Tuesday, when the Cats received much higher praise from their collective coaches after a spirited practice that included a 35-minute mini scrimmage.
“It’s been difficult, but I feel like I’ve been learning and taking it all in,” the quarterback said.
Has it been more difficult for him than he expected it to be?
“It can be, but you can’t let that get to your head,” Wilson said. “You just have to keep a positive outlook to it and keep moving forward.”
For his part, Hoak took some steps backward in the scrimmage after showing promise earlier in the spring, his coaches said.
“I’m grading very hard because I want them to understand what the standard is to play the position,” Hinshaw said. “This is the time to really make it hard on them.”
Kentucky is relatively thin on offense this spring and missing some key play makers, which has made life more difficult on the quarterbacks as they try to get ready for the fall.
They’re equally splitting reps with the first team as the battle continues and probably will well past the Blue-White Spring Game on April 13.
“Quarterbacks need to play the game, situational football, understanding when to throw it away, understanding when to have a check down, all those things,” Gran said.
But all of that takes time. And a lot of patience.
After all, not even Stephen Johnson was built in a day.
“I’m excited with where we’re going, but we took some steps backward on Saturday,” Hinshaw said after Tuesday’s practice. “Today we took some steps forward, did some better things and it all works together.
“I hope (fans) are excited about what you see at quarterback by next Friday.”
Blue-White Spring Game
When: 6:30 p.m. April 13
TV: SEC Network