By LARRY VAUGHT
Just a few hours after the Music City Bowl ended with heartbreak for Kentucky, senior quarterback Stephen Johnson had an emotional message for Kentucky football fans that have grown to love him the last two years.
“It’s been a hell of a journey. I’ll always bleed blue!” Johnson posted on Twitter.
Yes it has. I’ve covered Kentucky football since 1975 and I’m not sure there has been a more unlikely storyline in all that time.
Johnson came to UK as a little-known junior college quarterback who really had no other big-time offers. If quarterbacks Patrick Towles and Reese Phillips had not transferred, odds are UK would never have gone searching so late for a quarterback and figured Johnson was the best it could get.
However, no one could have known just how good he would be and the only way it could have been better would have been if his two-point conversion pass in the final minute of the Music City Bowl had been caught by Tevin Richardson instead of falling incomplete. A catch would have given UK a dramatic 25-24 win and 8-5 record. Instead, UK lost 24-23 after trailing 17-7 at halftime and finished 7-6 for a second straight year.
This season 7-6 was seen as disappointing because UK also went 7-6 in 2016. Credit Johnson’s play for helping raise expectations to the point where a winning record and Music City Bowl berth did not overly excite UK fans.
He was forced into action in 2016 when starting quarterback Drew Barker went down with what turned out to be a season-ending back injury. Johnson never flinched. He was not the greatest passer or runner in the SEC. But he was one of those rare players who just had a knack for making the key play at the right time.”
“Not one word to describe him. He is fearless,” Kentucky senior receiver Charles Walker said after the Music City Bowl. “He will be successful no matter what. He is one of the best people I know. He is just fearless. He does not care if he is going against a 300-pound tackle for a first down or touchdown. He will run over him. When you put him in a bad situation, he will get you out of it.
Kentucky offensive coordinator Eddie Gran called him a “stud.” Running back Benny Snell referred to him as a “quarterback god” because of his winning play.
“He’s as tough as I’ve ever coached in my 31, 32 years,” Gran said. “He just is one of the most resilient kids I’ve ever been around. I love that kid. Love him.”
How could you not? More than once the last two years he was physically abused on the field. He had sore ankles, shoulders, elbows. He took hit after hit. Several times he left the field looking like there was no way he would return. Every time he came back — and often led UK to wins.
Johnson threw for 2,037 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2016 when he completed 54.7 percent of his passes. This year he passed for 2,305 yards and 10 scores while completing 59.8 percent of his passes. He ranks ninth on UK’s all-time passing list with 4,342 yards despite playing just two years.
“He’ll always be remembered for his toughness and his guts and his determination,” Stoops said.
The coach was not surprised that Johnson overcame a second-half interception that was returned for a score to almost lead UK to victory. He knew his senior leader would not quit. That’s what made teammates — and fans — respect him so much.
Off the field, he did things the right way, too. He respected others, went out of his way to help others and cherished his faith in God.
Before Johnson’s Senior Day game, former UK quarterback Tim Couch posted a message on Twitter saying it had been a “pleasure watching” Johnson play.
Johnson’s reply: “Thank you Mr. Couch. I really appreciate it.”
Today I just want to say: Thank you Stephen Johnson. I really appreciate having had a chance not only to see you play, but to be around such a special young man. Congratulations on a job well done on and off the field the last two years.
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