LEXINGTON, Ky. — Stephen Johnson literally had his hands full Tuesday morning. Kentucky’s starting quarterback held two smoothies and a sack full of snacks while speaking to reporters after the team’s seventh practice of spring football.
“They really have me eating a lot of food,” said Johnson, whose current nutrition plan calls for 5,000 calories a day. “It’s tough getting it. During the day, you get tired of eating.”
Oh, to be a skinny college quarterback. While most of America fights a losing battle against bulging bellies, Johnson is stuffing himself to get big and strong enough for a successful second season in the Southeastern Conference.
The junior-college transfer was listed at 6-2, 183 pounds in his first season as Kentucky’s starter last fall. Johnson was effective — 2,037 yards passing, 327 yards rushing, 16 total touchdowns and only 6 interceptions in guiding the Wildcats to their first bowl game since 2010 — but coaches feared for his safety at that size. So did he.
“Definitely,” Johnson said. “I try to play like I’m Cam Newton even though I’m not 250 pounds. I try to go out there and play with my heart out of my chest. If I do that, there’s definitely a little bit of space to worry. But if I gain some more weight like I’ve been doing, everything can be just fine.”
He said he’s close to his goal weight of 195 pounds — although 200 would be ideal — and just as important, he’s gaining strength. With a weaker grip last season, Johnson ranked third nationally in fumbles (10) and second in lost fumbles (6).
“Part of it is just the first time playing in the SEC and going through those situations and understanding how to protect the ball and when to get down,” Kentucky QB coach Darin Hinshaw said. “And also with strength. Now we’re at a point where he’s going to be the strongest he’s ever been in his life and now he knows what he needs to do to take care of the football. That’s the No. 1 thing that we’ve been preaching all spring.”
Johnson has spent a significant portion of the offseason carrying 45-pound plates around and around the Wildcats’ weight room to strengthen his grip. He can already tell a difference in his fingers and wrists.
“When guys rush around me, sometimes swipe at the ball, it doesn’t affect me at all,” Johnson said.
Kentucky’s coaches raved about the progress they’ve seen from the quarterback already this spring. He shined in the team’s first scrimmage on Saturday.
“He is playing at a very, very high level,” Hinshaw said. “I’m really, really pleased with where he is at. He’s taken great leadership and ownership. He’s mastering the offense and he’s getting more and more comfortable there behind center. Now we’ve got Stephen, who has competed and won in the SEC and he’s really learned what not to do and how to do it the right way, so it’s a lot more fun for me with Stephen.”
The Backups: Drew Barker, who opened last season as the starter before being sidelined with a back injury that ultimately required surgery, is working his way back into practice. “He has a lot of cobwebs and rust he’s gotta break through,” Hinshaw said. Redshirt freshman Gunnar Hoak is running with the second team and “I think we can win in the SEC with Gunnar Hoak, 100 percent,” Hinshaw said. True freshman and early enrollee Danny Clark has experienced the usual growing pains but did scramble and toss a touchdown in Saturday’s scrimmage.
A Departure: Redshirt freshman wide receiver Dakota Holtzclaw is no longer with the program, UK confirmed Tuesday. A towering target at 6-foot-7, he briefly tried a move to tight end this spring before leaving the program. He never caught a pass for the Wildcats.