Though stated before, it bears repeating. When the book is written on Mark Stoops’ time at Kentucky, the pivotal chapter involves January 2016 when the head coach informed his two new offensive assistants they needed to find a backup quarterback. Who they found was Stephen Johnson.
A season and a half later, the backup has long been cemented as a starter. With Johnson as its primary 2016 quarterback, Kentucky won at Louisville. It reached the TaxSlayer Bowl. This year, it is off to a 5-1 start, including a 2-1 mark in the SEC after Saturday’s 40-34 win over Missouri. Stoops Era pre-Johnson record: 12-26. Stoops Era with Johnson: 12-5.
I’ll admit, in the preseason, I predicted that at some point Drew Barker would re-take the starting job. Barker was the four-star recruit, Stoops’ first high-profile grab in 2014. He had assumed the starting mantle before last season only to have his season shut down after the first series of the third game because of a back injury. With Barker now healthy, the cream would rise to the top.
Turns out, it’s already there. The same calmness-under-pressure and playmaking ability Johnson showed last season has continued this year. Only more. Johnson is sharper, more accurate and, unlike last year, he’s cut down on his turnovers.
In Saturday night’s shootout with Mizzou, Johnson completed a career-high 22 passes in a career-high 36 attempts for 298 yards and two touchdowns with one interception. Only in last year’s New Mexico State game, the first in which the juco transfer saw his first extended action, did Johnson throw for more yards, completing 17 of 22 for 310 yards and three scores.
Over his last three games, Johnson has thrown for seven touchdowns with just one interception. On the year, His TD/INT ratio is 9-to-2. Since the Nov. 19 Austin Peay game of last season, Johnson has thrown for 12 touchdowns with just two interceptions.
He’s 37th nationally and sixth in the SEC in pass efficiency rating at 147.5. After completing just 54.7 percent of his throws a year ago, Johnson is hitting on 63.9 percent this season.
“I think there’s so many pieces to it, there’s so many components to it that has to be right and it starts with protection and starts with guys running the right routes, making catches for him,” said Stoops after Saturday’s win. “You can’t constantly diagram beautiful, clean plays. You got to make competitive plays, you got to get open, you got to win, you got to beat somebody. And so I think overall he’s definitely improved, but I definitely think around him has improved as well.”
Because he’s a share-the-credit kind of guy, Johnson would agree with that assessment. So if we’re sharing the credit, let’s start with offensive coordinator Eddie Gran and quarterbacks coach Darin Hinshaw. They’re the ones who discovered Johnson after watching tapes of 25 possible candidates when Patrick Towles (Boston College) and Reese Phillips (Montana) decided to leave the program.
Johnson had started his college career at Grambling before transferring to the College of the Desert, closer to his Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., home. And Hinshaw has admitted the video showed some mechanical problems in Johnson’s delivery — he dropped the ball too low before bringing it up — that he had to be fixed.
Plus, he was thin. Very thin. That’s what I immediately thought when seeing Johnson for the first time during 2016 spring drills. He moved well, but man, I thought, he sure is thin. Plus, he didn’t seem to throw the ball all that well.
By fall, Johnson was better. By the start of 2016, even better. By the time he took over for the injured Barker, earned some confidence and settled into the job, he has taken Kentucky places it has not been in a while. And there are plenty more good places to go.
SEC top passers
Jarrett Stidham, Auburn
Jake Fromm, Georgia
Shea Patterson, Ole Miss
Jalen Hurts, Alabama
Danny Etling, LSU
Stephen Johnson, Kentucky
Feleipe Franks, Florida
Kyle Shurmur, Vandy
Jake Bentley, South Carolina
Drew Lock, Missouri