Quarterback Stephen Johnson looks to the sideline for a play call vs. South Carolina – Photo by Keyli Chisesi (Go Big Blue Country)
Kentucky entered the season with some questions about the quarterback position. Would it be Stephen Johnson, the savior of the 2016 season, or Drew Barker, the former Kentucky high school standout? That question was quickly answered with the Wildcats trailing Eastern Kentucky in the second game of the season.
Barker had missed a full year of action due to a back injury suffered early in 2016. The coaching staff gave him a shot vs. EKU, which didn’t end well, as the offense went backward. That wasn’t on Barker, as the offensive line completely failed to protect the UK junior. However, the realization that Johnson is the starter has more to with his leadership, rather than the struggles of Barker.
All Johnson did last season was turn a 0-2 start into a 7-5 regular season that included a victory vs. Louisville and a berth in the Tax Slayer Bowl. Despite the turnaround last season, questions remained about his ability to make intermediate throws and secure the football when taking a hit.
Through 11 games last season, Johnson threw for 2,037 yards and 13 touchdowns, adding 327 yards and 3 touchdowns on the ground. He completed 145-of-265 passes for a 54.7 completion percentage and rating of 130.9. The interceptions weren’t a high number, finishing with six in 265 pass attempts. However, fumbles were an issue, as Johnson accounted for 6 of the Wildcats 16 fumbles in 2016.
Fast-forward to 2017 and you see a completely different quarterback. Through four games, Johnson has accounted for one turnover, an opening drive interception at South Carolina. Despite taking some hard knocks, the UK senior is yet to fumble the football. Something Eddie Gran and Mark Stoops wanted to see improve, or Johnson would not be taking snaps.
In addition to improved ball security, Johnson has improved in all statistical categories. He has completed 59-of-92 passes for 765 yards and 5 touchdowns. His completion percentage of 64.1 is nearly ten points higher than last years 54.7 mark. Johnson has also increased his average yards per completion from 7.7 to 8.3 and his QBR has risen to 81.6, which ranks 9th in the country. The Rancho Cucamonga native has also added 134 yards and 2 touchdowns on the ground.
Johnson is fresh off his best start of the season vs. Florida, where he threw for 196 yards and 3 touchdowns. He completed 17-of-25 passes, leading to fans wanting to see him throw the ball more often.
Entering the season, most fans described Johnson as a game manager and credited last season’s success to a dynamic rushing attack of Boom Williams and Benny Snell. However, Johnson is more than just a game manager, as he is also a game changer. The ability to use his legs to escape the pocket and make plays sealed victories versus EKU and South Carolina.
Regardless of how you felt about last Saturday’s loss, you have to feel confident moving forward with Johnson leading the offense.