Mark Story

On mission trip to Belize or facing Lamar Jackson, UK’s Stephen Johnson won’t be rattled

Kentucky quarterback Stephen Johnson directed the Wildcats to wins in seven of the 11 games last season in which he took the preponderance of snaps.
Kentucky quarterback Stephen Johnson directed the Wildcats to wins in seven of the 11 games last season in which he took the preponderance of snaps. Herald-Leader file photo

You can take Stephen Johnson to Central America. You can confront the Kentucky quarterback with challenges — repairing churches, rebuilding fences, laying cement — that stretch his skills.

Yet even on a mission trip this summer to Belize with his family and other members of the Abundant Living Family Church, Johnson couldn’t be rattled.

“He was asked to do a lot of things, maybe, he hadn’t done a lot of before,” the UK quarterback’s father, also named Stephen Johnson, said of the trip. “But you know Stephen: He just kept his head and put in hard work.”

One wonders: Is there anything that can faze the famously even-keeled Kentucky QB?

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Kentucky Wildcats quarterback Stephen Johnson, No. 15, hurdled Mississippi State defensive back Cedric Jiles during UK’s 41-40 win over the Bulldogs last season in Lexington. Charles Bertram cbertram@herald-leader.com

A year ago, a back injury sidelined Kentucky starting quarterback Drew Barker after the first series of the season’s third game against New Mexico State.

His backup, Johnson, had signed with Grambling State out of high school. The Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., product had left the FCS school for the College of the Desert, a California junior college. He then transferred to UK with little fanfare.

Now, he was quarterbacking a Southeastern Conference team.

Yet of the 11 games in which Johnson took the preponderance of snaps, Coach Mark Stoops’ Cats won seven times. Johnson directed the Wildcats (7-6) to their first winning season since 2009 and first bowl game since 2010.

It wasn’t always pretty. A willowy 6-foot-2, 180 pounds (maybe) last season, Johnson had fumbling issues. Three of his miscues turned into scoop-and-score touchdowns for opponents.

Though a maestro at throwing the deep post (seven TD passes of 40-plus yards), Johnson’s elongated throwing motion — bringing the ball down near his hip to initiate throws — caused him to struggle with accuracy on shorter passes. His overall completion percentage, 54.7 percent, was pedestrian.

Through highs and lows, Johnson’s emotional thermometer never seemed to move one degree in either direction.

“From the time he was a toddler, he’s always been like that,” says Paula Johnson, the quarterback’s mother. “He’s always been a little introverted, kept things internal, just very even-keeled.”

As a child, Johnson suffered from Tourette Syndrome, a neuro-development disorder in which one is afflicted by facial and verbal tics. Deeply religious, Johnson and his family believe prayer cured the future college quarterback’s condition when he was 13.

“Just going through the things I’ve gone through, I try to stay even keel as long as I can, as best as I can,” Johnson says.

Family magic

For Johnson’s parents, the 2016 Kentucky football season at times had the feel of a fairytale.

After an injured Barker left the New Mexico State game, Johnson responded by throwing for 310 yards and three touchdowns to lead UK to its first win of the year, 62-42, over the Aggies.

Making the night more memorable for the UK QB, his entire family — both parents, plus his younger sister Sydney and younger brother Shane — came to Lexington from California for the game.

The Cats quarterback is especially close with his sister, a senior forward/midfielder on Southern California’s 2016 women’s soccer NCAA championship team. Her presence at the New Mexico State game was a surprise to her older brother.

“After the game, he ran over to his sister first, not his mother. I haven’t let him forget about that,” Paula Johnson jokes.

On Nov. 26, when Johnson threw for 338 yards and three scores and ran for 83 yards and got the better of Lamar Jackson as UK stunned archrival U of L 41-38, his parents were spending their 22nd wedding anniversary at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium.

Is watching your son outshine the Heisman Trophy favorite in an intrastate rivalry game the best wedding anniversary ever?

“Yes,” Stephen Johnson the elder says, “it is.”

“Absolutely,” Paula Johnson says. “Without question.”

Keeping the UK starting job

Stephen Johnson’s chance to create more magical moments for his family in 2017 depends on holding on to the Kentucky starting QB job. After undergoing back surgery in November, an apparently healthy Barker is back in the UK QB mix.

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Kentucky Wildcats quarterback Drew Barker, No. 7, signaled touchdown in the first half of UK’s 2016 season opener against Southern Mississippi. Barker threw four touchdowns passes before halftime, but USM rallied from 35-10 down to win 44-35. Mark Mahan

“We had a (quarterback) competition (before) last year — I won it,” Barker says. “But college football is pretty much ‘What have you done for me lately?’ And, lately, I’ve been hurt and not able to perform. So I just need to go out and show (the UK coaches) I’m ready.”

To hold the starting job, Johnson knows he has areas that need improvement. To end the fumbling, he has added muscle to his spindly frame. “I’m up to about 190 (pounds) now,” he says.

Trying to elevate his completion percentage, Johnson has worked to streamline his throwing mechanics.

“We talked about it after the season,” UK quarterbacks coach Darin Hinshaw says. “I said ‘Stephen, shortening your motion, especially with the intermediate routes, don’t drop (the ball) down. The longer the motion, the more inaccuracies you are going to have.’ He’s really worked at it.”

Even after directing UK to seven wins a year ago, Johnson says having to compete to hold on to the Kentucky starting quarterback job — wait for it — does not faze him.

“Going into it, I believe I am the starter,” he says. “But there is competition every day. And it should be like that.”

If form holds, Stephen Johnson will meet that competition by just keeping his head and putting in hard work.

Scouting the Cats

Quarterbacks

The main man: Stephen Johnson inherited the Kentucky starting job from an injured Drew Barker in the season’s third game and led the Wildcats to seven wins. The 6-foot-2, 190-pound senior threw for 2,037 yards and 13 touchdowns and ran for 327 yards and three scores. Though Johnson completed only 54.7 percent of his passes in 2016, Eddie Gran, UK’s assistant head coach for offense, says the quarterback has shown his biggest improvement in camp in “his intermediate passes, hitting those, in stride, not behind (receivers).”

The supporting cast: Drew Barker is returning after back surgery. In limited action (five starts) at UK, the former Conner High School star is a 50-percent career passer (53-of-106, 5 touchdowns, 7 interceptions). “Drew, he’s got a learning curve still to just get a little bit of the rust off,” says UK quarterbacks coach Darin Hinshaw. Redshirt freshman Gunnar Hoak, standout of the spring Blue-White Game (16-of-24 passing, 174 yards, 2 TDs), is running third team in fall camp. True freshmen Danny Clark and Walker Wood, the former Lafayette High School star, appear headed for redshirt seasons. Junior walk-on Luke Wright, who started last year’s Austin Peay game (3-of-4 passing, 28 yards) before being replaced by an injured Johnson, also returns.

Outlook: A year ago, unheralded junior-college transfer Stephen Johnson helped save Kentucky’s season after Drew Barker’s injury. Johnson is now the most experienced QB on the UK roster, but needs to eliminate a penchant for fumbling and show more accuracy on shorter and intermediate pass routes. If Johnson falters, and Barker is healthy, UK has options it did not have a season ago.

- Mark Story

Scouting the Cats

This is the last of nine stories looking at the 2017 Kentucky football team, position by position.

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