Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Column: Armwood QB Johnson's play rises to every occasion

SEFFNER — Noah Johnson was told, unflinchingly, the success of the Armwood football team this season hinged on how good he would be.

Throw the ball accurately, scramble for yards, make smart decisions, lead.


"I was good with that," said Johnson, a junior. "I knew everyone was looking at the quarterback position. I knew there were questions, but I was confident I would get there."

There is here, in the Class 6A state semifinals, where the undefeated Hawks host Bartram Trail tonight, thanks in large part to their quarterback's growing prowess as an offensive firebrand.

After a slow start, Johnson has improved in leaps, bounds and flat-out sprints. He has directed an offense that is averaging 41 points in the playoffs, higher than its regular-season average.

"Everything is clicking," said coach Sean Callahan.

"I don't think we've had a stretch in my five years here where our offense has played this well," said offensive coordinator Evan Davis. "I mean, play the run, and we can throw for 350 yards, play the pass and we can run for 375. We have the personnel that we can attack a defense at what they are not good at."

Johnson is the main thrust. To Davis' point, his quarterback ran for a career-high 208 yards against Jefferson in the second round of the playoffs, and threw for a career-high 273 against Springstead in Round 3.

His numbers for the season — 1,910 yards passing, 724 rushing — are almost identical to what Josh Grady did in 2010, and he is a candidate for Player of the Year.

"I guess I'm a little surprised," Johnson said.

He is probably not the only one.

Ineligible last year for eight weeks because of a residency issue, Johnson was a man without a primary position when he returned. So he played them all — he threw six passes, ran the ball eight times, caught five passes and played defensive back.

But over the summer, he seized the starting quarterback job with a string of strong 7-on-7 performances — including MVP honors at the HomeTeam Unsigned Preps Battle of the Bay — that left coaches hopeful for the fall.

But there remained questions, mostly those that came with playing with pads on and facing blitzing defenses, and Johnson was operating behind a rebuilt offensive line. The combination of youth and inexperience led to a bumpy start, and Johnson threw as many interceptions as touchdowns his first three games, and Blake managed eight sacks against Armwood.

"We were exposed," Callahan said. And maybe even a little concerned.

It's no coincidence that when linemen Thomas Bartley, Willie Edom, Kevin Richardson, Evan Montreuil and Deandre Hudson started playing better a few weeks later, so did Johnson.

"Those are the guys that are responsible; I give them all the credit," Johnson said. "Without those guys, I can't do what I'm doing."

The melding of an inexperienced quarterback and his linemen yielded dramatic results.

Johnson averaged 118 yards passing the first six games and 200 the last six.

He averaged 29 yards rushing the first six games and 92 yards the last six.

Despite a quirky sidearm delivery, he has been accurate, completing more than 60 percent of his attempts.

"Unorthodox delivery, but the ball comes out of his hand like a rocket," said Ty Alvarez, an assistant coach who works with the passing game. "Everyone doesn't have to look like Peyton Manning. Our focus has really been just accuracy, getting the ball to the playmakers and taking what the defense gives you. When he started doing that, that's when you started seeing the results."

Unlike most Armwood teams, this one uses the pass to set up the run, and Johnson is seamlessly making it all go. Davis said he's not surprised his star pupil has exceeded expectations.

When he first saw him, he wasn't wowed by Johnson's athletic ability or pretty throws. Because truthfully, Davis said, the budding quarterback wasn't flush with either.

But he lobbied last year for Johnson to start at quarterback, even after missing two months.

"I saw something special in him," Davis said. "He worked his butt off and he really wanted it more than anything else. And he's a kid that when he wants it, it might take a little longer, but he's going to get it."

John C. Cotey can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @JohnnyHomeTeam.

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