Charlotte 49ers quarterback Matt Johnson can’t wait for Saturday’s game against unbeaten Coastal Carolina.
“You’re going into a game against the (sixth-ranked) team in the country, how can you not be excited about that?” said Johnson.
It’s the ninth game for Johnson and the 49ers (4-4), whose season has been full of all the thrills, chills and inconsistencies expected of a start-up program.
Those traits are personified in Johnson, a redshirt freshman who is learning the intricacies of his position as he navigates his first season.
“I anticipated a little more of a bumpy ride than we’ve had with Matt,” 49ers offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Jeff Mullen said. “I’m pleased with how far he’s come. Having said that, he’s got a long way to go.”
Johnson has thrown for 2,043 yards and completed 62.5 percent of his passes for 19 touchdowns and nine interceptions. He’s a threat to run, too, gaining 255 yards on 70 carries. His play has been impressive enough that he was named to the watch list for the Jerry Rice Award, which goes to the Football Championship Subdivision’s top first-year player.
“This season is going by so fast,” said Johnson. “I’m learning on the fly each week. But each week is different and I’m learning to adjust. And it’s beginning to stick.”
There’s a lot to grasp for Johnson in the 49ers’ spread, no-huddle offense, which averages 31.6 points and 437.5 total yards. But Mullen, a former quarterback coach at Wake Forest who was also offensive coordinator at West Virginia before coming to Charlotte, isn’t handing it all over to Johnson yet.
“We really haven’t given Matt all of the playbook, and that’s on purpose,” said Mullen. “That’s helped him so he’s not having as many growing pains as he might otherwise have. So we’re spoon-feeding him a little, especially late in the season when it gets tougher to move on offense because film gets out on him and defenses can game plan him.
“But our offense has executed at a very high level, and a lot of that’s because of Matt.”
Johnson’s running skills have been a significant part of the 49ers offense. He’s the team’s third-leading rusher, averaging 31.9 yards behind running backs Alan Barnwell and Kalif Phillips.
And there is nothing subtle about Johnson’s running style. Instead of safely sliding before he gets hit, he often uses his 6-foot-2, 215-pound frame as a battering ram against tacklers.
“I can take a hit and I think I can also deliver a hit,” Johnson said last Saturday, a hint of defiance in his voice after Charlotte’s 36-14 loss to Charleston Southern, in which he carried the ball a team-high 13 times. “I’ll learn how to slide next summer.”
Mullen said he’s already teaching Johnson that art.
“He’s got to learn that when you’re taking on tacklers on like that, there are two parts of a quarterback’s body you don’t want exposed, and that’s the head and the throwing shoulder,” said Mullen.
Johnson has stayed injury-free. He briefly came out of a game earlier in the season after taking a big hit, but said that was because he’d had the breath knocked from him and was nauseated after swallowing a bunch of the rubber pellets used in Charlotte’s artificial turf field.
“I wonder why I don’t slide sometimes,” said Johnson. “I guess I’m focused on getting the extra yard.”
Johnson was a run-first quarterback at Maiden High, a major reason why he wasn’t highly recruited. But Mullen saw Johnson throw at a summer camp before his senior season with the Blue Devils and knew he’d seen something special.
“He was pre-tagged as more of an ‘athlete’ or H-back – not a quarterback – by recruiters,” said Mullen. “I’m no guru, but we took a shot because we thought enough of his arm. We knew he could throw it and had other physical attributes. But what we wanted in a start-up (program) quarterback was more about his intangibles.”
What Johnson is providing in leadership and toughness is unquestioned.
“It doesn’t matter if he’s a freshman – the guy at Florida State (Jameis Winston) is and Johnny Manziel was last year,” said senior C.J. Crawford. “What I like is how he acts on the field and on the sidelines. The guys put their trust in him.”
Johnson still has plenty of work to do in his development as a passer. He’s had huge games, passing for more than 300 yards twice and being ranked in the top 20 nationally in several statistical categories.
But his inexperience has also shown in games against N.C. Central, when he had five interceptions, and last Saturday against Charleston Southern, when he often missed open receivers and didn’t look comfortable in the pocket.
“His mechanics were off (against Charleston Southern),” said Mullen. “Sometimes he tries too hard and he tends to press, especially against really good opponents. You can tell it in his release; it comes out funny sometimes. It’s like a basketball player needing to be in the flow of the game. Matt’s trying to force his shot.”
And when Johnson presses, he often forces the issue by running with the ball. That’s not an uncommon last resort for a freshman quarterback, especially one who spent most of his high school career as his team’s primary runner.
“In high school, the quarterback usually just reads (the defense) and runs,” said Mullen. “You don’t necessarily grow by doing that. He was a playmaker in high school. He’s in college now. He’s got to be the distributor.”
Johnsonm, who threw five touchdown passes in victories against Gardner-Webb and Chowan, understands that.
“I’m not the best athlete out there anymore – not even close,” he said. “I’ve got all these guys – (receivers) Austin (Duke), Trent (Bostick), Mikel (Hunter) and (running backs) AB (Alan Barnwell) and Kalif (Phillips) to get the ball to.”
49ers coach Brad Lambert is confident Johnson will continue to figure it out.
“He’s had a lot thrown at him,” said Lambert. “A first-year quarterback in a first-year program has a lot going on. You’ve got to have the right mentality. He’s the right guy I want handling every snap. That’s comforting to me.”
Scott: 704-358-5889; Twitter: @davidscott14
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