When Drew Barker went down in Week 3 against New Mexico State, things looked bad for the Kentucky Wildcats. They were 0-2 at the time and at a loss as to where the season was headed. The New Mexico State Aggies, one of the worst teams in college football, were hanging around and making it a game.
After Barker went down, JUCO transfer Stephen Johnson entered the game and a bulk of the fan base thought the season may be over. After all, Barker was the four-star recruit that was in year three of his time at UK and he received the unquestioned backing of the coaching staff heading into summer training camp. The offense was built around his ability to throw the football.
But instead of folding, Johnson stepped in a rallied the team. He threw for 310 yards and three touchdowns en route to a 62-42 win. All he did for the rest of the season was go 7-3, lead Kentucky to a bowl game, and outplay the Heisman trophy winner on his field in a program defining win over the Louisville Cardinals.
Drew Barker was out for the season with a back injury that required surgery. The former highly touted high school QB recovered nicely in the offseason and is set to be ready for a full contact camp. Gunnar Hoak red-shirted last season but as another highly touted recruit fans are eager to see what the young guy can bring to the table.
All of that shouldn’t factor in to the fact that this is Johnson’s offense. After all, he was one of the main reasons that Kentucky ended up in a New Year’s Eve bowl game. He was one of only three players that were chosen to represent UK at SEC Media Days. There shouldn’t be a question that Stephen Johnson will be the starter going to Southern Mississippi on September second.
But that’s not the case. Head coach Mark Stoops and offensive coordinator Eddie Gran refuse to emphatically state that this is Johnson’s team, which is a departure from last season when they fully endorsed an unproven Drew Barker.
At the Kentucky football kickoff luncheon on Tuesday, Eddie Gran stated that there is still a competition for the QB spot heading into camp and also said: “who knows where it’s going to end up.”
I’m not sure if this is a good sign or a bad sign for Kentucky heading into camp. Will Johnson feel slighted?
There are a few reasons as to maybe why the coaches are being cautious with the QB position:
- Stephen Johnson isn’t progressing as a passer quite like they had hoped. While his deep ball is thing of beauty, Johnson struggled to hit the short to intermediate passes. Fans and coaches were both left frustrated as Johnson repeatedly failed to hit an open CJ Conrad down the middle. A talented tight end like Conrad is a weapon the ‘Cats cannot afford to ignore.
- Drew Barker is further along in his rehab and is looking more like the player we all saw in the first half against Southern Miss than the player we saw in the second half in that game, against Florida, and in limited snaps against New Mexico State. The fact of the matter is that we have a very small sample size with Barker and that sample size hasn’t been overly impressive. He’s played one good half of football in three seasons (one red-shirt) at UK.
- The coaches are afraid of running off either Barker or Hoak. QB depth is coveted around college football, and the Wildcats finally have it after years of decimation and frustration at that position. In order to placate the back-ups who are labeled as “OR” on the depth chart, the coaches are willing to let it play out in camp.
While Johnson was good, he didn’t necessarily light up the scoreboard last season. He threw for only 2,037 yards, 13 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions. Gran retooled the offense to cater to Johnson’s running threat and the two headed beast of Boom Williams and Benny Snell in the back-field. Whatever passing Johnson could add was a bonus.
While the back-field is still loaded with Snell, AJ Rose, and Sihiem King, Kentucky needs a legitimate, consistent passing threat that is more diverse than just a deep ball throw to the end-zone in order to progress as an offense. If Johnson is still unable to do this, then the coaches will no doubt look to Barker or Hoak.
I think that Johnson will start game one, but the fact that it’s not universally known that it’s his job with no questions asked leads me to also think that he will be on a very short leash.
Stephen Johnson has all the intangibles that one can ask for in a quarterback: he’s smart, he’s even keeled, and players respond to his leadership. If he can improve on his athletic limitations, then Kentucky will be in for a special season. But if coaches have to once again turn to the second or third back-up, then that won’t generate the type of confidence a team needs to take the next step.
H/T to my buddy Andy Sweeney for generating the conversation (@TheOnlySweeney on twitter), co-host of The Midday Rush along with Lachlan McLean on ESPN 680 in Louisville. Their show airs Monday-Friday, 10:00 AM-12:00 PM.