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Dieting in Reverse: Wildcat QB Johnson trying to grow into his job as team’s No. 1 signal-caller

By Guy Ramsey
Special to KyForward

Stephen Johnson is dieting, but not like a normal person would.

His diet basically consists of eating as much as possible.

“Not anything and everything, but they really have me eating a lot of food. I have two smoothies right now with a goodie bag to take home,” Johnson said as he left Kentucky’s football facility on Tuesday. “So I’m just trying to eat really good food and eat as much as I can.”

Taking over for Drew Barker after an early-season injury, Johnson became UK’s starting quarterback last season and led the Wildcats to their first bowl trip since 2010. He endeared himself to fans with his toughness, playmaking ability and more than a few perfectly thrown deep balls, but Johnson – who stands 6-foot-2 – did it all with a listed playing weight of 183 pounds.

Stephen Johnson is dieting, but not like a normal person would (UK Photo by Elliot Hess)

In the midst of spring practice, Johnson – who threw for 2,037 yards, rushed for 327 and accounted for 16 touchdowns – admitted his slender frame caused him concern facing physical Southeastern Conference defenses.

“Like I said last year, I try to play like I’m Cam Newton,” Johnson said. “Even though I’m not 250 pounds, I try to go out there and play my heart out of my chest. If I do that, there’s definitely a little bit of space to worry about, but if I gain some more weight like I’ve been doing, everything will be just fine.”

That’s where that diet comes in. Eating four meals and four snacks a day, Johnson’s daily intake is around 5,000 calories.

“During the day you get tired of eating, but you have to do it,” Johnson said.

Johnson’s goal is to get to 195 pounds and he said he’s “close.” The progress is already paying dividends.

“He had gotten here and had worked his butt off to improve, but when he had gotten into the season you lose a little bit (of weight),” quarterbacks coach Darin Hinshaw said. “Now we’re at a point where I think he’s going to be the strongest he’s ever been in his life and now he knows what he needs to do to take care of the football. And that’s No. 1 that we’ve been preaching all spring, is to take care of the football.”

To that end, Johnson is also working hard with strength coaches Corey Edmond and Mark Hill on the 10 fumbles he had last season, the second most of any player in the country. The solution? He walks around the weight room carrying a 45-pound plate to build strength in his wrist and fingers.

Just as important than that, though, is experience built through his first season at UK after transferring from the College of the Desert via Grambling.

“Part of it’s just for the first time playing in the SEC and going through those situations and understanding how to protect the ball and when to get down and when not to get down,” Hinshaw said. “So a lot of that has to do with that, and also with strength.”

That experience is showing itself in spring practice in more than ball security. Running with the first string almost exclusively as Barker works his way back from back surgery, Johnson has earned praise often from his coaches ahead of the Blue-White Spring Game on Friday, April 14.

“You know right now consistency wise, I really like where Stephen is right now,” offensive coordinator Eddie Gran said. “I think he’s been really consistent in what he’s doing, making really good decisions.”

Johnson is matching good decision-making with the sound leadership you would expect from a soon-to-be senior quarterback.

“He is getting better and better and better,” Hinshaw said. “As far as on the field, he’s playing a very, very high level. I’m really, really pleased with where he’s at. He has really taken great leadership and ownership. He’s mastering the offense and he’s getting more and more comfortable there behind center.”

Once again, it’s all about reps for Johnson.

“I think it’s just the experience now,” Johnson said. “Being a little bit more comfortable with the offense, having playing time under my belt, just being able to see things a little bit slower now than I did last spring really helps out.”

Guy Ramsey writes for the UK Athletics Media Relations Department

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