The most pressing order of business for new University of Kentucky football assistants Eddie Gran and Darin Hinshaw has been to find a quarterback who can compete right away in the Southeastern Conference.
The departures of Patrick Towles and Reese Phillips left Drew Barker as the Wildcats’ only returning scholarship player at the position, and a month before national signing day isn’t the optimal time to go looking for SEC-ready quarterbacks.
UK’s new offensive leaders might have found one in Stephen Johnson II.
Johnson — a 6-foot-3, 185-pound quarterback from California — officially signed with the Wildcats on Saturday afternoon and plans to return to Lexington next week as an early enrollee for the spring semester.
Shortly after taking over as UK’s quarterbacks coach last month, Hinshaw was on the phone with College of the Desert (Calif.) head coach Jack Steptoe.
Hinshaw wanted to know if there were any problems that had stopped Johnson from picking up scholarship offers from major college programs. Steptoe told him there weren’t, that Johnson is “a natural-born leader” and the type of kid every coach dreams of.
UK extended an offer, and Johnson was ecstatic.
“He likes what they’re going to do — what they’ve talked to him about,” Steptoe told the Herald-Leader. “Stephen is an SEC guy. There’s no doubt about it. And you’ll see that soon enough when he gets down there.
“Kentucky is getting the real deal.”
Steptoe, who has coached for nearly three decades and once played in the NFL, got to know Johnson when the player was in high school and said he was also lightly recruited then. Steptoe placed a call to an old friend — Grambling State head coach Doug Williams, the former NFL quarterback and Super Bowl XXII MVP — and said he wanted Williams to take a look at a kid who wasn’t getting much attention.
“Doug saw him, called me back and said, ‘I gotta have this kid,’” Steptoe recalled.
Johnson sat out the 2013 season as a redshirt and then won the starting quarterback job as a freshman. He started four games before being sidelined for several weeks with a high ankle sprain.
The injury cost him the starting job, and Johnson was relegated to second-team reps the following spring. He called Steptoe and said he hadn’t been given an opportunity to win back the top spot — Williams had been fired by that point, and Broderick Fobbs had taken over as Grambling State’s head coach. Johnson asked if Steptoe would take him for a year at College of the Desert.
Steptoe excitedly welcomed him back to California, but the late move meant that Johnson had missed all of spring practice at the junior college, and that was when Division I coaches were stopping by to recruit.
Johnson went into the season as a little known prospect, but he quickly proved his talent.
“He’s real fast, he’s real smart,” Steptoe said. “If Stephen makes a mistake in a game, he doesn’t make it again. He doesn’t make it the rest of the year. He has that football intelligence. He knows what he’s looking at. He spends a lot of time in film watching his opponent, knowing where their holes are.”
Johnson finished the season with 3,210 yards passing, 34 touchdowns and just seven interceptions over 10 games. With a conference title on the line in the final game of the season, he was 29-for-51 for 388 yards and five TD passes, the last of which came with less than a minute left to put College of the Desert ahead for good.
Hawaii and Arkansas State were among the programs that called with scholarship offers, but the Wildcats were the team that caught Johnson’s attention.
Steptoe said UK’s coaches have told Johnson that he’ll have the opportunity to compete for the starting job in the spring.
Barker, who will be a sophomore next season, started the final two games of 2015 and is seen as the favorite heading into next fall. Freshman Gunnar Hoak, who enrolled at UK last week, is theonly other scholarship quarterback.
Johnson, who will have two seasons of eligibility, is regarded as a three-star recruit and the No. 5 dual-threat QB in the juco ranks. The “dual-threat” label often means a player has limitations in the passing game, but Steptoe said that’s not the case with Johnson.
“He’s probably one of the best quarterbacks I’ve ever seen as far as anticipating a route,” he said. “He’s pass first and run if he needs to. He doesn’t panic, and he keeps his eyes downfield. He can find people. He can throw darts on the run.
“He knows when to zip it, he knows when to touch it, he knows when to back-shoulder it. Some of those things you can teach, but some guys don’t get it. Stephen has a natural feel for it. … He’s the full package.”
Kentucky’s expected quarterbacks for 2016
Stephen Johnson II
Passed for 34 TDs in 10 juco games
Started two games for UK in 2015
Enrolled early for spring practice
Walk-on transfer from Cincinnati