Sidelines with John Clay

It’s Stephen Johnson’s team now

Kentucky running back Sihiem King (22) put a strong block on New Mexico State linebacker Terrill Hanks (2) as UK quarterback Stephen Johnson released a pass last Saturday at Commonwealth Stadium in Lexington, Ky.
Kentucky running back Sihiem King (22) put a strong block on New Mexico State linebacker Terrill Hanks (2) as UK quarterback Stephen Johnson released a pass last Saturday at Commonwealth Stadium in Lexington, Ky. Lexington Herald-Leader

By all indications, it’s Stephen Johnson’s team now.

Drew Barker will miss a significant period of time with his back injury, Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops announced after Wednesday’s practice. The coach didn’t say that the sophomore who started UK’s first three games is done for the season, but the prognosis didn’t sound promising.

Doctors, specialists, trainers and Barker’s family agree that the quarterback will receive rest and treatment for at least the next three weeks. After that, his status depends on how the back responds. No surgery now, but there could be surgery in Barker’s future. We’ll just have to wait and see.

In the meantime, UK’s new leader is a junior college transfer who wasn’t even on the roster until January. With Patrick Towles and Reese Phillips leaving the program after last season, Stoops instructed the combo of new offensive coordinator Eddie Gran and quarterbacks coach Darin Hinshaw to find a juco quarterback who could provide immediate help.

Hinshaw looked at tape of 25 quarterbacks and locked in on Johnson, who had started his college career at Grambling before transferring to the College of the Desert. Hinshaw said he thought Johnson’s skill set would be a good fit for Gran’s offensive scheme. He said he thought Johnson could provide Barker some good competition and he liked what Johnson could do with his legs.

Still, the 6-foot-2, 183-pounder needed work. He arrived with the bad habit of “dropping the ball” during his throwing motion, meaning he was dropping the ball low before bringing it up to a higher release point. That not only lengthen his release time, but also hurt his accuracy. Hinshaw immediately began working with Johnson on his motion.

During spring practice, Johnson was a work in progress. He showed ability running the football, but he still needed work in the passing game. He admitted Tuesday that he was disappointed in his play during the Blue-White game but he kept working all summer and Hinshaw said this week he’s been pleased with Johnson’s progress.

It showed last Saturday. When Barker left after the first series, Johnson took over. A little nervous, Johnson’s first series didn’t go so well. After that, however, he settled in and put up terrific numbers, completing 17 of 22 passes for 310 yards and three touchdowns. His pass efficiency rating of 240.64 pass was the best by UK quarterback 20-or-more attempts since Tim Couch’s 240.85 vs. Louisville in 1998. (Couch was 29-of-39 for 498 yards with seven touchdowns and no ino interceptions that day.) Johnson also rushed for 51 yards in UK’s 62-42 win on Saturday.

“I really liked his poise,” Hinshaw said after the game. And indeed Johnson appears to be a cool customer, one who won’t be rattled by the pressure of suddenly being the team’s first-string quarterback. He has said all along he came to UK to compete for the starting job.

South Carolina provides a different challenge on Saturday, however. New head coach Will Muschamp made his name as a defensive coordinator. Though he was fired after four seasons as the head coach at Florida, it wasn’t because of the Gators’ defense. The defense he inherited at South Carolina may be lacking in overall talent, but it has been opportunistic. In its 20-15 loss to South Carolina last Saturday, East Carolina reached the red zone six times, but scored just nine points.

Having now seen Johnson on video, Muschamp will undoubtedly have some tricks up his sleeve come Saturday. It will be interesting to see how Johnson responds. After all, it’s his team now.

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