Charlotte 49ers football coach Brad Lambert recently summed up where he thought sophomore quarterback Matt Johnson most needs to improve this season.
Sliding, getting down, Lambert said with a laugh.
Lambert was only half joking. Johnsons freshman season was, by most measures, a success: he accounted for 2,999 yards in total offense (2,581 yards passing, 418 rushing) as Charlotte went 5-6 in its inaugural season of football.
But many of those rushing plays ended with Johnson at a sturdy 6-foot-3, 230 pounds lowering his shoulder and taking on a defender (or defenders) rather than hitting the ground safely with a slide.
Johnsons physical style of play, while crowd-pleasing and probably worth a few extra yards on the stat sheet, usually had Lambert and offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen cringing.
Hes a 230-pound, tough kid, said Mullen after Wednesdays first preseason practice. Sometimes were wired in certain ways. But I want the quarterback position to be a distributor, not a playmaker. Hes not Superman back there. His job is to get the ball to guys who are Superman: the running backs running the ball, the wideouts catching it. I dont want Matt doing either.
Does Johnson agree, and is he willing to change? Absolutely.
Playing quarterback takes a lot more than what I tried to do last season, he said. I need to be staying in the pocket, handing the ball off to people who can really make plays.
I worked hard in the offseason and Ive still got to be able to take a hit. But weve got guys like Austin (Duke), Dmarjai (Devine) and Trent (Bostick) to get the ball to downfield.
Mullen said a quarterbacks second season is crucial. Its time for him to learn from the freshman mistakes and to build on what worked well. Johnson did plenty of things correctly, as evidenced by nearly 3,000 yards in total offense and a completion rate of 60.1 percent.
Hes progressing the way he should, said Mullen, who has coached former star quarterbacks such as Riley Skinner at Wake Forest and Pat White and Geno Smith at West Virginia. The biggest fear in Year 2 is you think you know it all and start doing things you shouldnt. Youre super quarterback as opposed to continuing to learn, to play through your offense, know your progressions and checkdowns. In Year 2 , you hear about some people regressing and in my opinion thats why. So were keeping a close eye on that. But I love Matts progress.
Johnson said his goal is for the game to slow down for him, which might seem counter-intuitive because he is directing an up-tempo, no-huddle offense.
The more he plays, the more experience he gets, the more the game will slow down, said Lambert. Its not our tempo, but how hes processing the game and how the defense is coming at him. Our tempo wont change, but it will come a little easier for him.
The 2013 season asked a lot of Johnson. He was a freshman quarterback on a first-year team, often facing some of the best defenses in the NCAAs Football Championship Subdivision. Yet he survived.
Thats a lot of stress, said senior offensive guard Daniel Blitch. The coaches told us all that we were going to have to grow up faster than we normally would. Matt did, too.
This year hes a lot more composed and a lot more comfortable. And he should be. Hes done well for the position hes in.
Scott: 704-358-5889; Twitter: @davidscott14
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