Sidelines with John Clay

Stephen Johnson leads Kentucky football into opener, with Drew Barker waiting

Kentucky quarterback Stephen Johnson speaks with Samuel Doster, 10, of Louisville, Ky., during UK Football Fan Day at Nutter Field House in Lexington, Ky., Saturday, Aug. 5, 2017. Johnson will be the starting quarterback when UK opens the season Sept. 2 at Southern Miss.
Kentucky quarterback Stephen Johnson speaks with Samuel Doster, 10, of Louisville, Ky., during UK Football Fan Day at Nutter Field House in Lexington, Ky., Saturday, Aug. 5, 2017. Johnson will be the starting quarterback when UK opens the season Sept. 2 at Southern Miss. aslitz@herald-leader.com

There was none of the usual training camp drama associated with the perennial hot-button position on the Kentucky football team, or any football team for that matter.

The starting quarterback was an answered question before Mark Stoops’ fifth camp even began, with the pecking order set early and poured in cement quickly thereafter.

No. 3 -- Gunnar Hoak, the redshirt freshman who raised eyebrows with a standout spring game.

No. 2 -- Drew Barker, the starter heading into the 2016 season, injured in the third the third game was not seen again thanks to eventual back surgery.

No. 1 -- Stephen Johnson, the former junior college transfer who swooped in to save the 2016 season after Barker rode off in the trainer’s cart.

That Johnson will start his first FBS season opener on Saturday when Kentucky visits Southern Mississippi for a 4 p.m. kickoff on the CBS Sports Network has been, well, underplayed.

[How Kentucky and Southern Miss match up, with a game prediction]

By all accounts, the 6-foot-2 California native has had a good camp. He’s put some weight on his thin frame. Quarterbacks coach Darin Hinshaw confirmed this week Johnson weighs 193 pounds now, up from 185. He’s bigger and faster, too, said the coach. He has taken care of the football.

The latter was a chronic problem last season. Johnson was often too loose with the football. Multiple times opponents stripped Johnson, scooped and scored. Georgia Tech executed that one-two-three move for six points during UK’s 33-18 loss in the TaxSlayer Bowl. At UK’s Media Day last month, offensive coordinator Eddie Gran put it plainly. If Johnson continued to fumble, he wasn’t going to play.

With that in mind, the senior put in the summer sweat to strengthen his arms, forearms and wrists. He was put through repeated ball security drills in practice. Experience and familiarity with the offense should play in his favor.

Johnson also needs to improve his pass completion percentage. He hit on just 54.7 percent of his passes last season. Deep balls were not the problem. Johnson showed a surprising flair for hitting the kill shot to streaking receivers. It was the short and immediate throws that gave Johnson trouble in 2016.

“He’s gotten better with that,” Hinshaw said. “Much better.”

Then there’s Barker, whom Stoops indicated Monday he would like to put into the game at some point Saturday. The head coach said Barker deserves the opportunity. After all, Barker did win the job a year ago. True, with Patrick Towles having departed to be a grad transfer at Boston College, Johnson was Barker’s only competition. And Johnson had arrived on campus just the January before. But a win is a win.

Then Barker got off to a blazing start in that first half against Southern Miss. Second series, he hit Tavin Richardson with a 41-yard pass down the middle. Third possession, his bubble screen to Jeff Badet turned into a 72-yard score. Fourth possession, Barker deftly slipped a sack and found Garrett Johnson for a 43-yard TD. Fifth possession, Barker hooked up with Richardson for a 33-yard gain. Then with 6:55 to go in the second quarter, Barker zipped a 53-yard dart to Johnson for another score.

Second half, however, a trap door opened. UK 35-17 at intermission, UK’s offense suddenly went ice cold. Its defense had no answers for Shannon Dawson’s Southern Miss offense. You know the outcome. Southern Miss 44, Kentucky 35.

What we didn’t know was that Barker was playing with a back injury he nursed all summer. Second game, at Florida, the quarterback took a hit that aggravated the injury. Third game, first series, Barker took another hit that sent him to street clothes and then surgery.

After being limited in the spring, Barker has been 100 percent this fall. He’s had a good camp, say the coaches. So, too, has Johnson. In 2016, Barker felt like it was his team to lead. In 2017, it is Johnson’s team to lead, with Barker waiting for his chance. It will be interesting to see how it all plays out.

Kentucky-Southern Miss 2016 stats comparisons

Category

Kentucky

So Miss

Scoring offense

30.3

32.8

Scoring offense rank

58

41

Total offense

420.2

472.8

Total offense rank

61

21

Rushing offense

234.2

174.5

Rushing offense rank

20

62

Pass efficiency

186.1

139.1

Pass efficiency rank

70

38

Scoring defense

31.3

29.5

Scoring defense rank

86

74

Total defense

434.2

324.8

Total defense rank

85

15

Rushing defense

228.2

149.9

Rushing defense rank

110

46

Pass efficiency defense

131.9

129.4

Pass efficiency defense rank

74

64

Third-down offense

39.1

40.9

Third-down offense rank

78

61

Third-down defense

44.4

24.0

Third-down defense rank

106

2

Net punting

34.6

40.5

Net punting rank

115

12

Penalty yards per game

46.5

64.5

Penalty yards per game rank

36

109

Turnover margin

-0.5

-1.3

Turnover margin rank

107

125

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