As LSU quarterback Max Johnson prepared for his first career start last year against Florida, his dad could have given him plenty of advice from his 15-year NFL career, including the Super Bowl 37 triumph with the Bucs.
He didn’t. Brad Johnson didn’t say much at all.
“Honestly, there wasn’t a lot to talk about,” Brad said this week. “Sometimes you can say too much as a parent. I wanted to stay out of his head and let him go play.”
His son didn’t just play. He played well, outperforming Heisman Trophy finalist Kyle Trask and leading the Tigers to an unforgettable 37-34 upset in Gainesville.
Johnson’s performance was even more impressive considering the tough situation he inherited. His team entered Ben Hill Griffin Stadium with a 3-5 record and depleted roster. Johnson became the starter as a true freshman because Myles Brennan suffered a season-ending injury earlier in the year and because he took the job from TJ Finley in the days leading up to UF.
If that wasn’t enough, his first drive as a starter began at the LSU 1. Johnson defused that threat with a short scramble and settled in.
His numbers were solid: 21-of-36 passing for 239 yards and three touchdowns. He rushed for another 52 yards. Beyond that, he showed a poise you wouldn’t necessarily expect from a young quarterback playing a three-touchdown favorite on the road in dense fog.
“Gutsy,” LSU coach Ed Orgeron said. “Gritty.”
Both traits were on display late, when Johnson led the Tigers on a nine-play, 36-yard drive to set up the winning field goal. Johnson got a boost from the infamous thrown shoe, of course, but he also had a crucial nine-yard rush on the next play that left him hobbling back to the line.
Orgeron called the game “a signature win for Max.” His father went even farther.
“It kind of saved their season last year,” Brad said.
LSU will be looking for a similar, season-saving victory when No. 20 UF visits Saturday. Two years after a national title, Orgeron’s seat is scorching from a 3-3 start. A win over the Gators would (temporarily) silence his critics and potentially turn the Tigers’ season around.
As LSU’s bad luck continues — Orgeron announced Wednesday that star cornerback Eli Ricks is out for the rest of the year — Johnson’s progress has been one of the few bright spots.
Gators defensive coordinator Todd Grantham noticed Johnson’s development on film as he game-planned against him this week. Grantham sees Johnson understanding where the ball should go better and showing more trust in his ability to hit tight targets.
Johnson’s numbers have improved, too. His 17 touchdown passes are tied for seventh nationally. His completion percentage (61.6) is up three points from last year, and he looks more comfortable with the pressure and responsibility that comes with being the starter.
“What’s impressed me about Max is he’s really got a what’s-next mentality that we talk about,” Tigers center Liam Shanahan said. “He’s not afraid if something goes wrong or if he gets hit hard, he pops right up, and he’s ready to go the next play. That’s something that I find kind of admirable.”
The Gators agree. As much as coach Dan Mullen talked up Johnson’s accuracy and arm strength this week, he went out of his way to praise the intangibles.
“To me, I think he also has that moxie,” Mullen said. “He makes plays. He scrambles around. He extends plays. He kind of has a great feel for that stuff.”
It was on display last year in Gainesville, when he led LSU to a season-salvaging win in his first career start. Now, with the stakes even higher, Johnson will have to do it again.
• • •