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USD QB set for closeup on national Shrine stage
OAKLAND – Before he would drift off to sleep in his home on 36th Street in Oakland, Josh Johnson would hear the cars exiting Interstate 580, its off-ramp in front of the two-story house he lived in as a teenager.
Later in those nights, the sounds of brakes screeching at a nearby stop sign would be mingled in his dreams with visions of touchdowns and high-fives. It seemed real to Johnson, but when he woke up, he told himself that playing college football was just a dream and probably always would be.
“I never thought it would be a reality because I never knew anybody who actually did it,” said Johnson, who as a skinny, undersized teenager (5-11, 150 pounds) played quarterback at Oakland Tech High.
Years later, Johnson – now 6-3 and 200 pounds – became the best and most celebrated player ever at USD, and is in position to go beyond all those early dreams and play in the NFL.
A Nov. 17 loss at UC Davis completed a college career in which the All-American set school records for passing yards (9,699), touchdowns (113) and completions (724). He was 30-4 as a starter and, in his senior year, led the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA) in total offense (371.4 yards per game) and passing efficiency (198.3).
And despite his accolades and few flaws (he had one interception this past season), Johnson knows his critics’ main query: Can he perform outside of the nonscholarship Pioneer Football League?
It’s the biggest question he’s answering in the week of practice before he plays in the East-West Shrine Game in Houston tomorrow, essentially the most significant job interview of his life. He’ll be one of three quarterbacks on the West roster, along with Sam Keller of Nebraska and Kevin O’Connell of San Diego State.
“Now you get a chance to show people they can’t use that excuse, ‘Well, he plays all right, but can he do it against these guys? Can he do it against other guys?’ ” Johnson said Monday after the first day of practice in Houston. “I mean, only time will tell and right now I’m getting the opportunity to do that.”
The prospect of Johnson being a pro quarterback – some mock NFL drafts project him as high as a third-round pick – and the reality of his upcoming college graduation are plenty to make his mother, Rosemary Whisenton, proud.
Still, Whisenton, who’s lived in Oakland’s inner city for more than five decades, is aware that each move or decision by her son in practice and the game could slightly sway his draft fate, thus affecting a family’s modest financial situation and his ability to pay off student loans a little faster.
“I think about that every day now,” Whisenton said while sitting on a couch steps away from a tall case with Johnson’s trophies and plaques in a corner of the living room. “My feeling is you take it one step at a time, and if you make it, you make it. If not, life is still going to go on. We’re gonna do what we have to do to survive.”
Johnson insists he isn’t dwelling on how his life can change on draft weekend, April 26-27.
“You think about it, but I can’t just do too much about it right now other than putting myself in the position to get there,” he said. “It’s not going to come to me if I don’t work for it. It’s not going to come to me if I don’t perform, so that’s why I can’t worry about it right now.”
Johnson – who also has been invited to the NFL Combine, where he will be closely evaluated by league scouts – already has enough motivation for the game. A close relative died two weeks ago, just a few days after a high school friend of Johnson’s was shot dead. Those losses happened while he was away from Oakland (he was training in Florida) and gave him a heavier heart to carry underneath the West jersey he’ll wear tomorrow.
“It just makes you realize you can’t take life for granted,” Johnson said. “You’ve got to take advantage of your opportunities.”
Johnson’s big break came when former USD coach Jim Harbaugh was told about the signal-caller by a local coach. At the time, college recruiters didn’t exactly have Johnson’s phone number on speed dial (“If they sent letters, I never saw ‘em,” Whisenton said). Harbaugh saw something most didn’t.
“That was the day my life changed,” Johnson said.
Harbaugh went on to groom Johnson and call him the best quarterback in college football – during his junior year.
Having a former pro quarterback tout him that much certainly helped Johnson’s cause, and last year a scout from almost every NFL team saw a USD practice or Johnson’s film. Ted Tollner, who did radio commentary for Toreros games, was on the advisory board for the Shrine Game and sold Johnson to others. Now, it’s tough to call Johnson a hidden jewel when his name constantly comes up in pundits’ sleeper picks.
In early October, Ethan Waugh, a San Francisco 49ers scout, wrote on the team’s Web site that Johnson “possesses a quick release, uncanny accuracy, great athleticism and the added bonus of playing in a pure ‘West Coast’ offense.’ ” Early this week, Johnson already was making a mark, as David Fox of Rivals.com reported that “he drew one of the largest groups of scouts in post-practice interviews” Monday.
Johnson had another group’s attention during Thanksgiving break, according to Whisenton, when he and USD teammate Anthony McCrady visited a small elementary school in the East Bay for students with behavioral problems, children who said they had never seen anybody from the area go to college.
There was one boy who, that day, was wearing new clothes and desperately wanted Johnson to sign his pants, so he called his mother and pleaded, “Please, please Mama, let J.J. sign my pants,” to which the mother asked, “Who’s J.J.?”
The boy, who maybe only dreamed about one day meeting a pro football player, said with certainty, “It’s Josh Johnson.”
USD QB set for closeup on national Shrine stage
By Willie Bans
SPECIAL TO THE UNION-TRIBUNE