LEXINGTON, Ky. — When Darin Hinshaw was hired as Kentucky’s quarterbacks coach in December, Mark Stoops gave him a task — find a quarterback and do it quick.
Former UK quarterback Patrick Towles transferred 11 days prior to Hinshaw’s hiring and the Wildcats needed bodies to back up presumed starter Drew Barker.
The Bearcats backup quarterback Luke Wright followed Hinshaw and offensive coordinator Eddie Gran from Cincinnati to UK, but the Wildcats were targeting one more signal caller.
Hinshaw evaluated 20-25 junior college quarterbacks. He settled on a guy more than 2,000 miles away in Southern California. His name was Stephen Johnson.
“In the process I thought he was the best,” Hinshaw said. “For what we do offensively, I said, ‘this kid can really be a weapon.’”
And now it’s Johnson who will be leading the Wildcats offense at 7:30 p.m. ET Saturday against South Carolina. Johnson came to College of the Desert, about an hour and a half drive from his hometown of Rancho Cucamonga, Calif. as a 168-pound quarterback. Johnson, who had gone to Grambling State out of high school, started as a redshirt freshman, but saw his season end at the mercy of a high ankle sprain. He found himself buried in the depth chart the next year after a new coaching staff came in.
That’s when College of the Desert coach Jack Steptoe brought him in. Steptoe had seen Johnson play in high school and pointed him toward Grambling State in the first place. Steptoe knew Grambling coach and former Super Bowl winning quarterback Doug Williams.
“He came down and threw the ball for me for about a half hour and I made a phone call to Doug Williams when he was the head coach at Grambling,” Steptoe said. “I said ‘Hey you need to take a look at this kid. I think this kid’s a sleeper. He’s been overlooked.’ Sent Doug video the next day. Doug said ‘I’ve gotta have him.’”
Johnson went to Grambling from Steptoe’s recommendation, then back home to play for Steptoe after losing his job and then from the desert to the Bluegrass after Hinshaw whittled a list of two dozen or so down to one.
“It’s a long ways from California so if you have your California personality that can sometimes have to mesh with a southern, Kentucky personality,” Johnson’s dad, also named Stephen, said. “I think he’s doing really well for that.”
It’s Johnson and Wright as the top two quarterbacks on UK’s depth chart. Johnson has been thrown into the starting role after arriving in January. Wright is the student of the playbook after playing in Gran and Hinshaw’s system at Cincinnati.
“With Patrick Towles deciding to transfer for his senior year, it left the cupboard bare,” Stoops said. “I’m sure glad we have Stephen, that’s for sure.”
Johnson threw for 310 yards and three touchdowns against New Mexico State last Saturday. He and the UK offense tallied 62 points. Johnson stood behind the podium after practice Tuesday, the spot formerly occupied by Barker, and was asked about his performance.
“I was a little bit pleased,” Johnson said. “For me, I’m my own greatest critic. I wanna go 100 for 100 completions and have no incompletions at all and execute everything perfectly. Have every perfect pass, but it went pretty well I guess.”
As Steptoe said: Johnson isn’t a “rah rah” guy. He’s a “doer.”
When it was clear Barker wasn’t going to return last Saturday, Hinshaw turned to the junior college transfer he saw so much promise in.
“‘Stephen, you’re the quarterback now,'” Hinshaw told him. “He played within himself, took a deep breath, and played like Stephen Johnson can.”