LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) Stephen Johnson recalls a smaller media contingent around him a year ago, as might be expected for a backup quarterback.
The group of reporters surrounding the Kentucky senior Sunday demonstrated how Johnson has surged from unheralded junior college transfer to being a focal point for a Wildcats squad looking to follow up their first bowl appearance since 2010. Thrown into action in last season's third game against New Mexico State following a back injury to Drew Barker, he won seven of Kentucky's final 11 games and backed that up with a solid spring.
Johnson began fall practice atop the depth chart, a status that has brought confidence to handle added responsibilities such as the gaggle of repetitive questions.
''It's definitely a lot more than last year,'' Johnson said about the media gathering, ''but I'm just excited and trying to enjoy it, this process and everything that's going on.
''I was just happy I got through the New Mexico State game and coming full circle to where I am now, I'm just excited to go forward.''
For the mobile 6-foot-2, 185-pounder, progress means being more mature while executing his multiple skills.
Johnson went 5-4 as a starter and helped Kentucky (7-6, 4-4 Southeastern Conference) win two other games in relief in its final 11 contests. The Rancho Cucamonga, California, player completed 145 of 265 passes for 2,037 yards and 13 touchdowns, adding 327 yards and three more TDs rushing.
His rise included its share of struggles, particularly holding the ball. Johnson lost six of 10 fumbles last season, mistakes he attributed to technique and lacking the strength to hold on properly.
''I would hold the ball out too far from my body and just give people the opportunity to strip it from me,'' said Johnson, adding that his arm is stronger.
''I used a little bit of instinct last year, but I've gotten a lot smarter since then. Working with (quarterbacks) coach (Darin) Hinshaw and (offensive coordinator Eddie) Gran, those guys are geniuses when it comes to football. Just sitting down with them really helped me out.''
Gran, whose QB depth is better with Barker recovered from the season-ending injury, expressed confidence that Johnson will correct his miscues. He's got no choice.
''I don't think there's any question he's going to get it fixed, because he won't be playing,'' the coordinator said. ''And he knows that.''
One asset Gran and the Wildcats already know about Johnson is his ability to throw the deep ball. He led a 41-38 upset at 11th-ranked rival Louisville and eventual Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson with three TD passes of at least 35 yards, including a 75-yarder to Garrett Johnson for Kentucky's first score.
Johnson aims to improve his touch on shorter throws and enable Kentucky to control the ball along with having big-play potential. Knowing he still has work to do has kept him humble despite his increased profile.
At the same time, Johnson's growth from adversity has Kentucky eager to see where the offense goes with him in control.
''Last year was just trying to figure it out, and we're still working on the timing,'' Garrett Johnson said. ''Stevie understands where he needs to grow, and he's definitely up for the challenge.''
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