Stephen Johnson has had to make a lot of adjustments since making the journey across the country from his home in California to Kentucky.
The junior college transfer has had to put on weight since arriving on campus, and the quarterback is still trying to add more before the season begins.
Johnson has had to get used to a new system, new coordinators and new teammates.
He’s worked hard to correct a hitch in his throw that caused concern when he first arrived at UK, noting this week during practice that “it doesn’t really exist anymore.”
But one thing Johnson may never ever fully get adjusted to is playing in the extreme humidity that has blanketed the Bluegrass since camp started last week.
“It’s really hot here and really sticky, just not like that back in California,” smiled Johnson, who most recently played at College of the Desert where “it really is zero humidity, but it’s like 120 degrees.”
The 6-foot-2, now listed at 183-pound quarterback (the goal is for him to get to 200 pounds), has worn extra sweatbands to combat the drip, and he’s using the cold tub regularly.
But other than that minor discomfort, Johnson is settling in nicely in his role of backup quarterback with the possibility of more.
He’s shown dramatic improvement from the spring, said Darin Hinshaw, his position coach.
“Stephen is maturing every day,” Hinshaw said. “There’s no doubt he’s getting better every day. There’s times, there’s no doubt that I’m starting to feel comfortable with him back there running the offense.”
The word maturity comes up a lot when people discuss Johnson, who enrolled at UK in January after throwing for more than 3,000 yards and rushing for 429 last season for the Roadrunners.
“He’s smart and he’s great to have in the quarterback room,” starter Drew Barker said. “He’s an older guy. So it’s cool to have someone with that older presence. He’s done a great job. He’s definitely gotten a lot better.”
Johnson is still figuring out some of the nuances of competing against Southeastern Conference-level secondaries.
He was able to hold onto the ball longer at the junior-college level, which meant fewer mistakes. Defensive backs at that level weren’t nearly as tall nor as physical. The coaches have worked to improve Johnson’s motion and altered how quickly the ball leaves his hand.
That’s meant speeding up his drop a little bit and changing the way he distributes the weight to his back foot, the junior said.
Johnson is still figuring out how to get the ball in the perfect place so the defensive back doesn’t have a chance to make a play for the ball. Sometimes he overcompensates and overthrows the receiver.
“He has a habit now — he knows where to go with the football — but his arm sometimes is not even with his body,” Hinshaw explained. “He needs to relax and complete those balls. He can run and do all of those things, but there are situations where he’s got to be able to throw and complete it.”
The running part is what could make him a valuable weapon going into the season, which Hinshaw noted, too: “He can make plays, too, with his feet. He is very fast. We’re excited about that.“
In the Blue-White Spring Game there were plenty of signs that he can make big plays. Johnson completed six of his 13 pass attempts for 135 yards and a score while also rushing for 47 yards and a TD.
“He’s getting better and better and I really like where he is right now,” Hinshaw said recently.
“My goal is to have him be able to lead the offense and have exactly zero transition between quarterbacks if that has to happen, whatever the situation.”
As Johnson has elevated his play, he’s raising the level of play around him, too, Hinshaw said before the start of camp.
“He’s very fast and his arm is very accurate,” the QB coach said. “He’s going to compete. He didn’t come here just to back up. He’s going to compete this camp, which is going to make Drew better.”
Southern Miss at Kentucky
When: Sept. 3, 7:30 p.m.