LEXINGTON, Ky. — Believe it or not, the wobbly spring game performance Friday night by Stephen Johnson and the emergence of another viable contender is the best thing that could’ve happened to Kentucky football and its presumptive starting quarterback.
Because for the first time since last fall when Johnson led the Wildcats to a 7-4 record, including a stunning win over rival Louisville and the program’s first bowl game in 6 years, Johnson’s position atop the depth chart looked less than solid. As he faltered in the Blue-White scrimmage, redshirt freshman Gunnar Hoak shined — and quarterbacks coach Darin Hinshaw loved what that means for the offseason.
“One hundred percent, yeah,” Hinshaw said. “I want him challenging Stephen. I want everybody to push Stephen. … That’s going to humble him right now and he’s going to roll his shirtsleeves up and get ready for this summer.”
Johnson, who outdueled Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson in the 2016 regular-season finale, completed just 8 of 18 passes for 106 yards, no touchdowns and an ugly interception against a collection of Kentucky’s backup defensive players.
Hoak completed 12 of 18 passes for 92 yards, 2 touchdowns and no picks while playing with the second-string offense against the Wildcats starting defense — then switched teams and completed 4 of 6 passes for 82 yards and scrambled for a 5-yard touchdown against the No. 2 D.
Fans hadn’t seen that yet from Hoak, but coaches said the performance was representative of his entire spring.
“He’s been very poised,” coach Mark Stoops said. “You see he’s effortless at times, and I just like the way he handles himself back there. He throws a very catchable ball, he’s very accurate. The more experience he gets, the better he looks.”
Offensive coordinator Eddie Gran praised Hoak’s confidence, efficiency and decision-making. Hinshaw grinned and nodded knowingly when reminded that he said 2 weeks ago Kentucky could win SEC games with the freshman at QB.
“Now, it does validate it in a spring game atmosphere, and he’s going against the 1s,” Hinshaw said. “I don’t want him to get a big head — Gunnar, don’t get a big head now, we’ve got a big summer — but he did a good job.”
So here comes that dreaded question: Do the Wildcats have a QB controversy? If there was going to be one, it figured to come in the fall when former blue-chip recruit Drew Barker got back fully healthy from back surgery last season.
“We’ve got some guys that are going to compete for this job,” Gran said, “so it’s going to be exciting.”
Johnson is still the overwhelming favorite to keep his starting job as a senior. No one else on the roster has demonstrated the combination of physical skills and mental fortitude that he did in leading a breakthrough season as a first-time starter last fall.
The touch-sack rule in the spring game also took away one of Johnson’s most valuable weapons: his ability to make plays on the move. He seemed to get derailed when an early deep completion was waved off by a “sack” on which he was barely touched.
“He has the ability to ad-lib and make plays and extend plays,” Stoops said, “and he really didn’t have that time today.”
But something else happened Friday that will send Johnson into the summer with an important cautionary tale: He fell in love with the deep ball — his specialty last season — and it finally failed him. Johnson fixated on shots down the field and either saw his pocket collapse before he could uncork one or sailed them just out of his receivers’ reach.
“He got a little greedy,” Hinshaw said. “I wasn’t over there because I was with the White team, so I didn’t get to correct him. I was screaming, but he couldn’t hear me. Stephen got a little greedy tonight and he’ll learn from that. We don’t have to throw the deep ball every single pass.”
Hinshaw, Gran and Stoops all went out of their way to say Johnson made major strides this spring and looked in total command of the offense. He walks, talks and acts like the leader of a dark horse 2017 SEC East title contender.
“He’s going to be fine,” Gran said.
Johnson can be forgiven for leaning on the long ball, too. Every 10th completion last season went for 30-plus yards and he hit on 10 passes of 40-plus. So no, there probably isn’t a QB controversy in Lexington, but a disappointing final performance of the spring might do him some good.
“[Hinshaw] is absolutely right: I was greedy,” Johnson said. “The throws I was trying to do today, I wasn’t trying to do the entire spring. I was trying to do a little bit too much. I wish I would’ve played a lot better than I did today, but I just have to come back and buckle down a little bit more, I guess.”
For a guy who went from junior college transfer to backup QB to unlikely Big Man on Campus when Barker went down last season, that reminder might’ve been the best thing that could’ve happened to Johnson and Kentucky football this spring.