Torero quarterback Josh Johnson didn’t plan on becoming a role model, but he soon realized he answers to more than just himself.
A funny thing happened to Josh Johnson on his way to USD. He thought he was off to gain an education and play football, leaving behind the gritty streets of Oakland for the picturesque campus of a small, private school. But while his new home, Alcalá Park, remains beautiful, as the record-setting quarterback prepares for his junior season with the Toreros, it turns out that the more success he enjoys, the more his heart and soul are drawn back to his roots. What Johnson didn’t anticipate was the growing responsibility he’d feel, both as a big brother and a role model to students coming up behind him at his urban-blighted high school, Oakland Tech.
“I come from a place where there’s not too much,” he says. “I’ve been home, and I know my high school coaches and people want me to succeed.
My little brother is playing quarterback now, and he calls to ask me stuff. He never did that when I was home. Our relationship has grown. I notice the vibes from other younger guys at my high school, too. I don’t want to fail, because it might affect other people. It’s not just about yourself anymore.”
Funny, but “it’s not just about yourself” also describes the way Johnson understands his role in head coach Jim Harbaugh’s West Coast offense. He spreads the ball around while running up staggering numbers that sound like they’re generated from a video game instead of Torero Stadium.
Last year, USD claimed the school’s first outright Pioneer Football League championship with an 11-1 record. The Toreros won the PFL North Division title and beat PFL South Division champion Morehead State in the league championship, 47-40. Johnson threw for 375 yards and five touchdown passes — all in the first half — without an interception.
“Personally, I want to exceed what I did last year, but I don’t put pressure on myself to try and do too much,” he says. “I don’t want to be a one-year wonder. I’m my own worst critic, and I’ve watched film from last year. I understand what I have to be like to be better this year.”
In his first year as a starter, Johnson completed 70.1 percent of his passes (260 of 371) for 3,256 yards, with 36 touchdown passes. The completions, TD tosses and yardage totals are school records. He was named a first-team All-American for Division I-AA Mid-Major schools by two rating services, The Sports Network and Don Hansen’s Football Gazette.
“If there was an SAT for football, he would blow it away,” Harbaugh says of Johnson’s quarterback savvy.
Big-time college recruiters missed out on Johnson because he was only a 5-foot-11, 145-pounder when he attended recruiting combines the summer before his senior year. That gave Harbaugh, a former NFL quarterback for 15 seasons, a chance to land a player he believes can develop into an NFL draft pick.
“He’s got athletic ability, he’s got arm strength, he’s got great location with the ball, and his best attribute is his mind,”
Harbaugh says. “He’s a quick thinker.”
Johnson, who says he comes from a family of late bloomers, finally began growing and arrived at USD with NFL height of 6 foot 3 inches. Now he’s adding NFL weight: He played at 180 pounds last season and says he’s up to 190 this year.
If Johnson’s growth spurt had arrived earlier, he most likely would be playing Pac-10 football alongside his close friend and former Oakland Tech teammate, Cal’s Marshawn Lynch. The Bears’ junior running back rushed for 1,264 yards last year and is a preseason All-American candidate.
But Johnson has no regrets about missing out on big-time college football.
“I’m getting a degree from a good school and playing for a great football coaching staff,” he says. “I wouldn’t want to take a chance on going someplace else. I’m preparing for life and football with great experiences. I have everything I need here.”