Football

Matt Johnson competing hard to regain Charlotte 49ers’ starting quarterback job

Matt Johnson (8), who has been the Charlotte 49ers’ starting quarterback for most of two seasons, is having to compete for the starting job with junior Lee McNeill and promising redshirt freshman Brooks Barden. Johnson is doing so with a great deal of maturity and self-awareness.
Matt Johnson (8), who has been the Charlotte 49ers’ starting quarterback for most of two seasons, is having to compete for the starting job with junior Lee McNeill and promising redshirt freshman Brooks Barden. Johnson is doing so with a great deal of maturity and self-awareness. dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

While Matt Johnson has been the Charlotte 49ers’ starting quarterback for most of two seasons, he says he’s never felt like the position had become his birthright.

“I’ve always been told to understand that it’s never about who’s behind there, catching the snap,” said Johnson. “It’s about Charlotte. Understanding and believing in that, when it comes time for changes to be made, it makes it a lot easier to deal with.”

That kind of attitude helps explain how Johnson – a junior who had 19 consecutive starts before missing the final three-plus games of the 2014 season with a knee injury – has taken the news that he’s not being handed his job back. He is having to compete for it with junior Lee McNeill and promising redshirt freshman Brooks Barden.

Johnson is doing so with a great deal of maturity and self-awareness.

“Look, we all came out of high school with a star by our names,” said Johnson, who has thrown for 4,522 yards and rushed for 801 more in his career. “In high school, I was the guy. I’ve played a lot (at Charlotte). But up here, there’s a lot more pressure. If I want to keep my spot, I’ve got to work for it.”

McNeill was impressive in Charlotte’s final three games after Johnson hurt his knee against James Madison, playing well enough that 49ers coach Brad Lambert said McNeill was the No. 1 quarterback when spring practice began.

McNeill was limited in the spring by a hamstring injury and Barden missed time with an illness. That moved Johnson, who had recovered from his injury and remained healthy all spring, back to the front of the line.

But Lambert said they are all even again as preseason practice began this week. A decision will be made soon, however. Lambert wants to name a starter well before Charlotte’s season opener Sept. 4 at Georgia State.

“We’ll get through a couple of weeks, name our starter and go from there,” said Lambert. “We evaluate them every day, like we do all our guys. But we’re going to be really diligent in our evaluation and make sure we make the right decision.”

Johnson understands that the coaches are looking for a quarterback who can help win games. The 49ers were 5-6 in each of their past two seasons. They move up from the NCAA’s Football Championship Subdivision to the Football Bowl Subdivision and Conference USA this season.

“We had two 5-6 years in (FCS),” said Johnson. “That wasn’t good enough. We’ve had to go back and look in the mirror.”

Each of the three quarterbacks brings his own strength and style to Charlotte’s spread, no-huddle offense.

“Matt is a big tough kid and can take a hit and is the one to run the ball pretty well,” said senior offensive lineman Danny Book. “Lee gets back there and reads the defense and gets the ball out on time. But he’s not as much of a runner as Matt. Brooks has the arm and he’s a sneaky-good athlete.

“I’ll let the coaches make the decision and I’ll block for them.”

That’s Johnson’s thinking.

“I’m not anxious about it at all,” said Johnson. “If I put every ounce of my ability into playing the position better, Charlotte’s going to be in a better position.

“I’ll trust the coaches’ judgment. That’s way above my pay grade – I mean, in the form of the education I’m getting! I don’t know about that stuff.

“I’m trying not to worry about it. Politics can screw with somebody’s mind. Whatever happens, whoever it is, Charlotte’s going to be in a great spot.”

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