TAMPA — Josh Johnson says he grew up a fan of the 49ers and still spends offseasons near his home in the San Francisco Bay area.
So ever since the 49ers hired Jim Harbaugh, Johnson says he can't go anywhere without somebody mentioning the possibility of him being reunited with his former University of San Diego coach.
The 49ers have an unsettled quarterback situation, and it's not a stretch to think Harbaugh might want to trade for the Bucs backup.
After all, Johnson will become a free agent next season, and the longer the NFL lockout endures, the more Harbaugh could use a quarterback with a working knowledge of his offense.
"I hear it all the time," Johnson said. "But a lot more goes into this than what you think. I understand that. It's why I try to stay in the middle. If I can't control the situation, I don't make any predictions on it.
"If something happens, I'm all for it. But at the same time, I enjoy playing for Raheem (Morris) and the Bucs. It's hard for any competitor to not be able to get out there, especially for me because I've gotten a taste of being a starter."
Johnson, 24, is entrenched behind Tampa Bay's Josh Freeman, who established himself by going 10-6 last season, passing for 25 touchdowns and six interceptions.
Two years ago, general manager Mark Dominik said he hoped to develop a situation in Tampa Bay at the QB position similar to what the Packers experienced many years ago with Brett Favre, developing young backups that other teams value as starters, such as Mark Brunell, Matt Hasselbeck and Kurt Warner.
Johnson was a fifth-round pick by Tampa Bay in 2008. The Bucs believe he will be a starter one day, and it seems unlikely they would stand in the way of that opportunity if they received the right compensation, most likely a middle-round pick.
The problem for Johnson — and Eagles quarterback Kevin Kolb or the Redskins' Donovan McNabb — is there can be no transactions during the lockout.
Johnson has learned to be patient. He starred at Oakland Tech High but wasn't heavily recruited. He turned down a college scholarship at St. Mary's after meeting Harbaugh, who had just taken over San Diego, a Division I-AA school that offered only financial aid. He passed for 9,312 yards and 108 touchdowns for the Toreros. A mixed performance at the NFL combine may have forced him to go lower in the draft than expected. Two years ago, he was the No. 4 QB in camp but was called on to start four games before Freeman took control.
"Him and I started our journey together," Johnson said of Harbaugh. "It was his first coaching job; it was my first opportunity. … I can talk football until both of my eyes are red and I'm passing out. He can, too. Whether I play for him again, we'll always have a relationship."
During the lockout, Johnson has been working with his longtime personal quarterback coach, Roger Theder, and has done more charitable work in Oakland.
Meanwhile, Harbaugh can only speculate about how 49ers quarterbacks Alex Smith or Troy Smith might fit his offense. Coincidentally, several years ago in a profile on Johnson by the San Diego Union-Tribune, Harbaugh was asked about eventual Heisman winner Troy Smith of Ohio State.
"I've seen Troy Smith play," Harbaugh said. "Our guy's better."
Maybe one day Johnson will get a chance to prove that.
"Even though Coach Harbaugh was my coach in college, it's the same thing with any team, there's still a business side to this whole thing, and I understand that," Johnson said.
"If I've got to go back to being the backup, that's my role with the team. We had two opportunities to make the playoffs in my three years there and we missed out in the last week. That's still burning up inside me. And as a competitor, I'm 0-4 as a starter, and that's on my track record and it burns me up to this day. I feel like the next opportunity I get, it's going to be a lot better. But that's easier said than done."