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Stephen Johnson's passing struggles create summertime questions for Kentucky

The good news for Stephen Johnson is that defenders will have to give him more than a love tap to get him down this fall.

But with Kentucky counting its quarterbacks down upon first contact with defenders in last Friday’s spring game, that neutralized the mobility that makes Johnson effective. Instead of relying on his running ability, Johnson had to function like a dropback passer.

That’s the bad news.

Johnson held onto the ball for too long, missed wide-open receivers for potential big gains and tossed an ugly interception just before halftime that helped the White team – a collection of reserves – tie the score at 14 against Johnson’s Blue team, composed of starters.

The Blue eventually won 31-14, but Johnson’s struggles hardly provided much confidence that the Wildcats can be more than a one-dimensional offense with him taking the snaps. It might even open the door for a dropback passer like Drew Barker, once he returns to full health following back surgery, or Gunnar Hoak (16-for-24, 174 yards, 2 TDs, plus a 5-yard rushing score in the scrimmage), who obviously outplayed Johnson (8-for-18, 106 yards, 1 INT) on Friday, to wrestle the job away from the incumbent starter.

It feels premature to say that, but there was nothing about Johnson’s performance Friday that slammed the door on any August competition.

The question Kentucky offensive coordinators Eddie Gran and Darin Hinshaw must ponder over the next several months is what they want this offense to be. In truth, they were one-dimensional last season once Johnson took over for the injured Barker, but at least that one dimension was outstanding.

It should be again. Benny Snell Jr. is back after an outstanding 1,000-yard freshman season. So is an offensive line full of road graders who lost only center Jon Toth from last season.

Even without the dynamic Stanley “Boom” Williams and Jojo Kemp alongside Snell in the backfield, the Wildcats’ running game should still have inside and outside weapons in Snell and Sihiem King, who rushed for 107 yards in the scrimmage, plus promising redshirt freshman A.J. Rose.

Their complementary running skills should create easy opportunities for a play-action passing game provided that Kentucky’s quarterback can complete the throws. Johnson occasionally did that in his first season as a starter – check out his 338-yard, three-touchdown showing last year against a strong Louisville defense – and yet he has not proven himself to be a consistent passer yet.

There's the dilemma.

There is a lot to like about this Kentucky team as it enters the summer months. We’ve already mentioned what should be a strong running game. There are several potential pass-catching weapons, led by Garrett Johnson and tight end C.J. Conrad. And the defense returns nearly everyone, including an outstanding collection of linebackers and a veteran secondary.

This is a team that might be capable of making some noise in the SEC East race – especially since it will play arguably the most manageable schedule of any team in the conference – but its ceiling seems tied to the quarterback position.

There will be times where Kentucky falls behind early and needs to throw to catch up, or it’s locked in a nailbiter and needs its quarterback to convert in an obvious passing situation late in the game. Can Johnson complete those passes that sometimes mean the difference between wins and losses?

Maybe, but he needs to make significant progress over the summer and in preseason camp if that is to be the case. Otherwise, Kentucky’s coaches might need to look elsewhere to develop a more efficient passing attack. The Wildcats’ legitimacy as division contenders could be at stake.