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Stephen Johnson made at least one fan a believer

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Stephen Johnson has made believers of us all.

Jeremy Chisenhall

Something happened last weekend, during the Tennessee game, that I hadn’t anticipated would ever completely happen.

I became a Stephen Johnson advocate.

For too long, I’d heard too many apologies about Johnson’s play. As he was overthrowing, under throwing and missing receivers, as he was fumbling and throwing interceptions, as he was getting sacked way too often for a QB with his running, scrambling abilities, I kept hearing, “Look at his win-loss record.”

As if Jordan Jones, Boom Williams, Denzil Ware, Josh Allen, Austin MacGinnis, Juice Johnson, Courtney Love, Mike Edwards, Jon Toth, Bennie Snell and the rest hadn’t had something to do with it.

Johnson beat Louisville, and deserved all the accolades he received. Then he lost to Georgia Tech, a loss that received very little attention because of the anticlimactic nature of the game. It was dessert. The regular season had been the turkey and stuffing.

I always felt that, with a team on the rise as Kentucky seemed to be, I wanted to see a better, more powerful quarterback driving that newfound success. Maybe I thought that Drew Barker would be that guy, a big drop back passer standing tall in the pocket and firing darts all over the field. Like Andre Woodson was.

Or, if not a classic QB, then a better version of the RPO quarterback. We’ve certainly seen tons of that type in the SEC lately – Josh Dobbs, Dak Prescott, Johnny Manziel, Cam Newton, Tim Tebow come to mind.

But, on Saturday, Johnson left the game with his left arm hanging, went to the locker room and, not long afterwards, came bursting back onto the field. Put me in, coach! I’m ready!

While he was out, Barker struggled. He seemed uncertain, a little bit dazed.

I’ve seen enough quarterback understudies come into situations like that one and do fine – better than fine – that I feel it’s not enough to blame Barker’s performance on being the second-string quarterback, getting no reps. Maybe blame the coaches for not having Barker prepared and game-ready. Or maybe he’ll never be game-ready. Or maybe, given enough plays, his poise and confidence would have come to the fore.

It didn’t matter. It was a close game against a border rival that had repeatedly kicked Kentucky’s ass over the years. It was not a time to put an unready QB under center. And when Johnson returned, there was this sense of calm that settled over the field. The feeling that everything would be all right, peace and order would be restored, Harrison Ford was on the scene to clean everything up.

Nor did Johnson disappoint. That last series, down by five, Snell ran the ball and Johnson threw one completion to Tavin Richardson. But more than that, Johnson scrambled for big gains on those quarterback keepers around end that have become his trademark – including the go-ahead touchdown, on one of those head-first leaps over defenders, landing on his shoulder, that we’ve come to expect from him. (This was a guy who couldn’t move his arm only 20-30 minutes earlier.) Then he engineered a double reverse on the conversion, with Snell and Charles Walker, that resulted in the final three-point lead.

But more than what he did was the way he brought calm into the Kentucky huddle – a guy who’s confident, knows what he’s doing and will chew glass to win the game. The players believe in him, probably in a way that Barker has yet to earn.

Johnson will be gone next year, and the Cats will have to turn to Barker (if he stays) or Gunnar Hoak or Danny Clark or the next super frosh, Jarren Williams (if he’s not in Tuscaloosa or Columbus, Ohio). They’re not without good options.

But this is this year, and there’s some comfort in this seat about having Stephen Johnson as my quarterback. It’s not something I would have said even only a week earlier.

Still not entirely sold on Mark Stoops. Maybe that will be the next unexpected conversion.