Vicksburg QB Johnson embraces new role

Published 8:02 am Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Statistically speaking, this was supposed to be a big year for Joe Johnson.

The Vicksburg High quarterback was entering his third season as the team’s starter, and every one of Warren County’s career passing records were within realistic reach for him.
It hasn’t turned out that way.

A five-game losing streak to start the season put him behind the pace to set records, and a midseason adjustment to the offense all but ensured he’ll stay there.

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The records, though, have taken a backseat to the record. The Gators are winning, are heading to the playoffs, and that has allowed Johnson to make peace with potentially coming up short in his quest for personal glory.

“It’s been an adjustment. It’s a new coach and a new type of philosophy, but as long as we’re winning it doesn’t matter to me. People know my skill level and what I can do, so I’m not worried about it,” Johnson said.

Johnson threw for 3,010 yards and 31 touchdowns as a junior in 2016. It was only the second time a Warren County quarterback has thrown for more than 3,000 yards or 30 touchdowns in a season and put him within reach of the county’s career records.

Coming into this year, he needed 1,708 yards and 16 touchdowns to pass former VHS star Cameron Cooksey for the top spot in both categories.

A tough early schedule and the losing streak derailed those plans. Johnson has yet to throw for more than 200 yards in a game this season and has only had multiple touchdown passes twice. Heading into the regular-season finale Friday against Holmes County Central, Johnson only has a little over 1,000 passing yards and nine touchdowns.

Vicksburg coach Lorenzo Breland said the struggles were not unexpected, considering the changes in Johnson’s supporting cast.

“We looked at last year and I told him we had a lot of weapons last year, and a lot of those weapons are gone,” Breland said. “You lost four starters on the offensive line. You lost two or three big-play receivers. So it’s one of those things now, where you’re trying to get a win. He understands that.”

Rather than get bogged down in disappointment, Johnson has embraced a new role as a game manager. He’s taken on a bigger role in the running game, having scored a touchdown in each of the past five games, and thrown a TD pass in four of the last five.

Rather than the big plays that marked the bulk of the Gators’ passing production last year, Johnson has thrown more short passes designed to keep the chains moving, bleed clock, and keep the defense off the field long enough to stay fresh.

Since the shift in philosophy, Vicksburg has won four of its last five games and ascended to third place in Region 2-5A. It will open the Class 5A playoffs next week at Olive Branch.

“We started off kind of rough and we had the coaching change and all of that. But we caught a feel right now and it’s great right now,” Johnson said. “We recognized that we played some hard teams early on, and we recognized that we were going through changes and just needed to find our philosophy. It seems like it’s working now.”

Vicksburg scored a total of 33 points in its first five games, with two of its five touchdowns coming via defense or special teams. In the last five games, it has scored 21 points or more five times.

In last week’s 29-21 win over Callaway, Johnson threw two for touchdowns and ran for another to stake the Gators to a 22-7 lead early in the third quarter. The offense slumped in the fourth, but had given the defense enough to work with so it was able to preserve the win.

And, at the center of the turnaround — both within the offense and the team — is a senior quarterback who put his own ego and goals in check for the betterment of the team.

Johnson could still pass Cooksey in the county’s record book. He needs about 600 yards and eight touchdowns for the career yardage and passing records, and has already joined Cooksey as the only quarterbacks with more than 5,000 career yards. With one regular-season game and at least one playoff game still to go, both marks remain feasible.

Of course, a couple of playoff wins would make it even moreso. If Johnson gets there, he’ll have to do it by leading the Gators deep in the playoffs, which would be more satisfying than individual achievement.

“That’s the main thing,” Johnson said. “We’re on a three-game winning streak and we’ve got Holmes coming in. We’ve got to get ready for next week.”

About Ernest Bowker

Ernest Bowker is The Vicksburg Post's sports editor. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post's sports staff since 1998, making him one of the longest-tenured reporters in the paper's 140-year history. The New Jersey native is a graduate of LSU. In his career, he has won more than 50 awards from the Mississippi Press Association and Associated Press for his coverage of local sports in Vicksburg.

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