LEXINGTON, Ky. — Stephen Johnson came to Kentucky to start.
He said as much during fall camp, but his dad said Johnson was never given that chance.
And now coach Mark Stoops and his staff have a decision to make after Johnson threw for 310 yards and 3 touchdowns en route to a 62-42 win. A back injury sent starter Drew Barker to the hospital, and even if he’s at full strength next week, a quarterback battle has broken out in Lexington, and Johnson surged to the lead Saturday against New Mexico State.
“I’ve been preparing for this for a while,” Johnson said after the game. “Don’t try to do anything spectacular. Just let it come to me.”
The junior college transfer from Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., joined his coaches in the no-speculation corner after the game, but the starting job is something Johnson has craved since he arrived at UK.
“I definitely came here to start. This season and next season,” he said during fall camp.
With Barker entrenched atop the depth chart all offseason, it’s a chance he never had. Johnson’s dad told SEC Country as much last month.
“Stephen is a starting quarterback,” Johnson’s father, also named Stephen, said. “He can play in the SEC. He can play at this level — he’s shown it. I think the challenge was unseating somebody who is already entrenched and the belief that the mindset was made up and that they were going to give (Barker) an opportunity to succeed or fail and that Stephen is there as a safety net.”
The safety net was in full use Saturday when Barker went down, but there was never a sense of panic, not from Johnson, not from his coaches and not from his teammates.
Barker threw three interceptions to two completions last weekend in The Swamp before Johnson entered. Johnson’s performance against Florida wasn’t enough to vie for the starting spot, but his stat line, albeit against New Mexico State, was enough to make teammates wonder about the job moving forward.
Freshman RB Benny Snell had a breakout, 4-touchdown night. A reporter asked if he’d give the job to Johnson, his response was simple: “Yeah.”
“I saw an animal,” Snell said of Johnson. “You know what I’m saying? He really did his thing. When his number was called, he was ready.”
Cornerback Derrick Baity is on opposite sides of the ball, but he’s faced Johnson in practice and he had a good view Saturday from the sidelines.
“I definitely think it’s a competition because you gotta respect he’s a dual-threat quarterback,” Baity said. “He will run or he will pass. Drew’s an excellent quarterback himself, especially throwing the ball, but you gotta admire a quarterback who can run and throw.”
Johnson’s dad said his son wouldn’t “sit back and expect being a No. 2.”
Now, he might not have to. If Barker’s injured, Johnson’s status as starter is solidified. But if not?
“You know what, I’ve gotta watch and see,” offensive coordinator Eddie Gran said. “See how he did, what he did and what decisions he made. I’m gonna go to sleep tonight and then wake up tomorrow and we’ll figure that all out.”