LEXINGTON, Ky. — Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart heard the boos muffle through a damp day at Commonwealth Stadium, their noise audible yet soft considering the few 49,669 fans scattered in the seats.
They came on Kentucky’s first possession. Drew Barker’s pass sailed high and into the hands of a New Mexico State defender. The dissatisfaction might’ve been bubbling from the two losses before. The smallest home crowd in coach Mark Stoops’ tenure quickly saw the already 0-2 Wildcats down a score to a Sun Belt squad.
“They were frustrated,” Barnhart told SEC Country on Wednesday.
“Stephen comes in and all of a sudden the personality of our team changes,” Barnhart said. “We become a different football team, and for different reasons.”
Barker’s interception was his last attempt to date. The sophomore quarterback has been out indefinitely with a chronic back problem. But the misfortune of one play led to a change that’s spurred a slew of wins for Kentucky: Stephen Johnson.
The slight 6-foot-2, 182-pound quarterback from Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., had lost his starting job at Grambling State, transferred to College of the Desert near his home in Southern California before being plucked by Kentucky quarterbacks coach Darin Hinshaw.
The Wildcats were looking for a viable backup for Barker. While Johnson said he came to Kentucky with every intention to start, Barker had secured the job until his injury. Johnson passed for 310 yards and three scores in a 62-point effort against New Mexico State, and he’s started every game since.
“I think in all my years of coaching, for a guy that really wasn’t planning on coming in and having this much, being our starter, he has really improved a lot,” offensive coordinator Eddie Gran said after practice Tuesday.
Kentucky is 5-1 with Johnson as the primary quarterback — its only loss coming against No. 1 Alabama. While there’s no question Kentucky’s offense relies on Benny Snell, Boom Williams and the run game, Johnson has put the Wildcats in position to win.
“He’s got the heart of a lion,” Barnhart said. “He might not be the most talented kid, but he’s got a wonderful heart. And I’ll tell you, he will battle. And he’s not very big. He just battles.”
Johnson is 11th in the SEC in passing yards per game and passing touchdowns. A pretty deep ball is canceled out by his propensity to fumble. Yet Kentucky continues to win, the best combatant for boos.
More from SEC Country’s interview with Mitch Barnhart
- Barnhart reflects on controversial contract for Stoops.
- After 0-2 start, Mitch Barnhart told Mark Stoops: “Don’t worry about me. Just go win some games.”
- Barnhart agrees with John Calipari: Basketball facilities need upgrades
- Dec. 3 could result in a dream-like scenario for UK fans.
- Barnhart says some Kentucky football fans still in wait-and-see mode.