TAMPA — With some light trash-talking involved, USF quarterbacks Jordan McCloud and Noah Johnson made a bet on a local high school game — Gaither vs. Armwood — played Oct. 23.
The game was billed as the best local high school matchup of the year, the perennial kings (Armwood) vs. the superstar challengers (Gaither). The vested interest for the USF quarterbacks was that McCloud’s brother, Kobe, is a Gaither linebacker, while Johnson is a proud Armwood alum (state finalist in 2013 and ’14).
“Yeah, we got into it a little (about Gaither-Armwood),” Johnson said. “And then it ended up being pushups. Whoever lost had to do 25 pushups in front of the winner.”
After a 17-10 Gaither victory, it was McCloud telling Johnson, “Give me 25.”
“I’m not going to lie, I was mad,” Johnson said, chuckling. “But we’re going to get it back. Armwood will be back.”
It’s like that with these two Tampa-area athletes, who sincerely are the best of friends despite being in a daily quarterback competition at USF.
“On and off the field we are always talking to each other, trying to figure how we can both improve,” McCloud said. “We are constantly trying to help each other be the best we can be.”
Johnson said, “Sometimes these quarterback competitions can be unhealthy competitions, but this is a totally healthy competition. We tell people that and they don’t seem to believe it, but I promise you, it is true with me and Jordan. It really is.”
But it sure hasn’t been easy.
The challenges have included working with a new coach, Jeff Scott (hired last December); COVID-19 (wiped out spring practice); Johnson coming in as a graduate transfer from Alcorn State; and McCloud returning as a sophomore with relatively limited college experience (10 starts before this season).
The results have been shaky, resulting in the Bulls' 1-5 overall record and an 0-4 mark in the American Athletic Conference.
The trouble has included too many fumbles (nine, with seven lost), interceptions (six), mistakes in key moments, and simply not scoring enough points (18 points a game average). In the process, there has been a frequent quarterback shuffle mainly between McCloud, who has gotten five of the team’s six starts, Johnson and sometimes Cade Fortin, who transferred this year from North Carolina.
Perhaps the most telling game was the last one against visiting Tulsa, which dominated the Bulls 42-13 on Oct. 23.
McCloud started, but it was Johnson who ended up doing the lion’s share of the work that night, completing 18 of 27 passes for 150 yards and a touchdown. Johnson’s performance, however, came between numerous quarterback changes (five total), including one with Fortin, who left the game and never returned after getting hit hard and suffering an upper-body injury.
Which brings the Bulls to Saturday’s game at Memphis, the favorites with a 3-2, 2-2 record.
One thing appears pretty likely for USF: McCloud (74 completions in 119 attempts with four touchdowns and two interceptions) and Johnson (28 of 48, 242 yards and one touchdown with one interception) will be leaned on the most, because Fortin remains sidelined.
“We are ready to help the team in any way possible,” McCloud said. “That’s simply how we look at it.”
Scott, meantime, has maintained his patience and continued finding positive sparks from McCloud and Johnson.
“Through all of this they have both continued working hard and kept up their great attitudes,” Scott said. “Anytime you have a quarterback competition, it’s important to know what kind of people they are. You want good people who are team players, and that’s what we have here. Both Jordan and Noah are first-class men, and I am grateful for that.”