LEXINGTON, Ky. — Stephen Johnson never played a snap for Doug Williams, but the Kentucky quarterback might’ve never landed in Lexington if not for the former Grambling State coach and Super Bowl champ.
Johnson was working out in Southern California and slim on college offers when College of the Desert coach Jack Steptoe saw Johnson throw for 30 minutes and made a phone call. Williams, then head coach at Grambling State and known for being the first black quarterback to win a Super Bowl, was on the receiving end.
“Hey, you need to take a look at this kid,” Steptoe told Williams, a longtime friend. “I think this kid’s a sleeper. He’s been overlooked.”
Steptoe sent Williams film of Johnson the next day.
“I’ve gotta have him,” Williams told Steptoe.
Johnson accepted an offer from Grambling State a week later, and his college career began.
“Doug Williams told me that he was the best quarterback he ever coached in terms of being able to anticipate the receivers’ routes,” Steptoe said.
But the slinger from Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., never played a snap for Williams. Johnson redshirted his freshman season in 2013, and Grambling started 0-2. Williams was fired in early September.
Johnson started at quarterback his redshirt-freshman season under current Grambling coach Broderick Fobbs. But a high ankle sprain sidelined Johnson after four games, and his backup won six of the team’s next eight games.
“Coming into the spring, they told me I was going to be the No. 2 guy no matter what I did, so that was really kind of why I left,” Johnson said.
Johnson finds himself in a reversal of that same situation at Kentucky. Starting quarterback Drew Barker suffered what would become a season-ending injury in Week 3 against New Mexico State, and Johnson guided his team to a 7-win season.
Now the job seems firmly in Johnson’s grip even if Barker returns healthy next season.
“He’s in the same position I was at Grambling,” Johnson said of Barker. “What I expect out of the spring when it comes is for us to compete. That’s the thing I didn’t get a chance to do at Grambling, so I really expect both of us to get a fair chance of being the starter come the spring.”
Had Johnson never gotten hurt at Grambling, he might have spent his career there. More important, had Williams never been fired, Johnson might not have left.
“We all thought of Coach Williams as a father figure to all of us,” Johnson said. “It definitely would’ve changed things, I think, if he stayed.”
And although no longer his coach, Williams was instrumental in Johnson’s happenstance-paved path to Lexington. Johnson transferred from Grambling when he knew the job was no longer his to compete for. He moved back to Southern California and enrolled at College of the Desert, a 90-minute drive from his home.
He completed a circle back to Steptoe — coach at College of the Desert. Steptoe, the one who saw Johnson in high school, the one who sent his old friend Williams tape of the undersized and unrecruited quarterback. Both coaches became crucial references when first-year Kentucky quarterbacks coach Darin Hinshaw started his search of bringing another quarterback to Lexington after former starter Patrick Towles transferred to Boston College.
Hinshaw evaluated 20 to 25 JUCO quarterbacks who potentially could fill in as Barker’s backup.
“We went all over the country and I looked all over, called everybody I knew, and then the guy that stood out to me was Stephen Johnson because of his motion, because of his athletic ability and the fact of his story,” Hinshaw said.
Hinshaw talked to Steptoe. He also talked to Williams.
“Doug Williams loved him, the whole deal,” Hinshaw said. “So we checked everything out about the kid and what a great human being he is and that kind of thing, and that’s what brought us to signing Stephen Johnson.”
Johnson is less than two weeks from quarterbacking Kentucky in the TaxSlayer Bowl. Williams is in his third season as a personnel executive for the Redskins — the team he quarterbacked in Super Bowl XXII, in which he was named MVP.
Williams is a graduate of Grambling State, a historically black college, but Johnson said the fact he was the first black quarterback to win a Super Bowl was well-known but not often talked about by Williams. Johnson said it’s indicative of the coach’s humble manner — something others see in Johnson.
“He was a guy you wanted to be,” Johnson said, “wanted to replicate.”