HOOVER, Ala. — Stephen Johnson’s presence at SEC Media Days, and the underlying fact that he led Kentucky to a seven-win season last year, is a fairly good indication that he’ll keep his starting gig in 2017.
Johnson said Wednesday that he’s been told he’ll be Kentucky’s starting quarterback when the Wildcats kick off against Southern Miss on September 2. And while Johnson’s job would figure to be secure, coach Mark Stoops inserted wiggle room for future quarterback decisions.
“Stephen has earned the right to be named the starting quarterback right now, but that’s today,” Stoops said. “Drew (Barker) was the starter last year as we were talking right here. Something happened, Stephen stepped in, did a heck of a job. He’s earned that right, but I expect Drew to come back and be better than he was.”
Barker hasn’t thrown a pass for Kentucky since the first series in Week 3 against New Mexico State. Barker exited with a back injury, and in November, had surgery. The former starter’s health has been in question ever since.
He was held out of the spring game, but on Wednesday, Stoops said he’s 100 percent.
“Again, I’m not allowed to watch him throw in the summer, but everything that I see from strength and conditioning, the running, the way he looks, yes,” Stoops said. “Everything I’m hearing from the receivers and from him, he’s getting back to full strength. I think there’s always a time when you’re coming back from an injury like that, that he has to get out there and get his confidence level back. He’s working on that.”
Kentucky’s depth chart released at SEC Media Days slotted Johnson in the No. 1 slot. As for the second spot, it read Drew Barker “OR” Gunnar Hoak. The latter is Kentucky’s redshirt freshman quarterback who performed well in the spring game.
“Let’s let the process play out and give Stephen the respect he deserves but give Drew and Gunnar (Hoak) the respect they deserve too,” Stoops said. “Just like all of our players, they’re out there to compete and win a starting job.”
Johnson was asked if it feels like Kentucky’s offense is his. His response? “Absolutely.”
“I wish I would’ve done a little bit better last year,” he added. “I hold myself to a higher standard.”
Johnson and sophomore running back Benny Snell are the faces of the Wildcats’ attack. Snell bruised his way across the 1,000-yard mark in his freshman campaign while Johnson was Kentucky’s calm navigator. He passed for 2,037 yards and threw 13 touchdowns opposite six interceptions, but his demeanor seemed as valuable as his talent.
“What I like about the way he played, even in some good times and some bad, at the end of the day, just about each and every game he started, he gave us an opportunity and put us in position to win the football game,” Stoops said.
Johnson will continue to have that opportunity, but the Wildcats aren’t without other options as Stoops pointed out.