Kevin Johnson saw Richmond’s season, and postseason goals, melting away. Which is how he wound up in head coach Danny Rocco’s office five days before the Spiders’ FCS playoff opener with a request: Play me.
Johnson watched Richmond’s all-conference quarterback, Kyle Lauletta, go down with a torn ACL two days earlier versus William & Mary, the latest in an almost biblical string of injuries to befall a team that at full strength was capable of contending for a national championship.
Johnson, a promising sophomore from Atlanta, was redshirting this season, playing the role of dutiful scout team quarterback. But with Lauletta done for the season and backup David Broadus unavailable, he all but insisted that Rocco play him, redshirt be damned.
“When it came down to it, he just really wanted to play,” Rocco said. “He told me that he wants to lead the team. He told me that this was something that he and his family strongly believed in. He told me that he felt that he’d be wasting an unbelievable opportunity if he did not take advantage of this chance to lead us into the postseason.”
Rocco, who in his words was “adamant” that he wouldn’t pull Johnson’s redshirt after Lauletta’s injury, relented. Johnson provided a much needed jolt, as the Spiders rolled North Carolina A&T 39-10 in the first round and prepare for a second-round date at No. 8 seed North Dakota on Saturday.
“I think it’s a big deal for the seniors and for my team, extending our season,” Johnson said. “That’s the big thing. For us, it’s all about winning and extending the season. I feel like I gave us the best opportunity to do that and I had to take advantage of it.”
After their initial conversation Monday, Rocco told Johnson to sleep on his request and see if he still felt the same way Tuesday. Johnson’s message the next day was identical.
“It’s one of those moments that you’ve just got to trust your instincts a little bit,” Rocco said. “If Kevin would have (come) to me and said, ‘Hey coach, I would certainly be willing to help out. If you think I’m the right guy, give me the ball.’ Anything like that, it wouldn’t have happened.
“He came in here with the thought that, you know what, I have the passion and the commitment to lead this football team. He does and he did give us the best chance to win. So once he kind of took the initiative and his family was committed to that storyline and to that belief, it made my decision a little bit clearer and a little easier.”
Johnson’s father, also named Kevin, heard that same commitment in conversations the two had over the weekend before he went to Rocco.
“He told me, at some point in time, I’ve got to stop thinking about me and I’ve got to start thinking about the team,” the elder Johnson said. “I thought, he’s growing up.”
Johnson described his son as a supremely confident, if quiet, leader who does whatever’s necessary. He recalled a national youth league tournament where his son led his team to victory despite playing with a broken wrist.
“I’m the one who gets hyped on the sideline, all hoopin’ and hollerin’,” said the elder Johnson, a lineman who played at South Carolina in the late 1990s. “He’ll kill you with kindness. He’s the kind of player who leads by example.”
In Johnson’s first start and just his fourth game – he saw spot duty in three games as a freshman – he completed 15 of 23 passes for 315 yards and one touchdown versus A&T. He also rushed for a touchdown.
“There were a lot of question marks coming into the game on Saturday,” Richmond’s all-conference center Nick Vergos said. “We all knew we could rally behind Kevin. He knows how to run the offense, he knows how to run the show. We have the most confidence in him.”
Indeed, Vergos said that Johnson may have the strongest arm of all UR’s quarterbacks and that his progress was visible daily. Rocco said that Johnson’s skill set permits the team to run its regular offense, whereas the remaining options at quarterback require considerable tinkering.
“With the game plan that we have, I can play more freely,” Johnson said. “Last week, I played free, but this week I really know what I’m doing. I got the experience of the one game under my belt. I feel like everybody has trust in me and they know what to expect.”
Rocco said that Johnson’s decision and example permeated the locker room all last week and throughout the game, almost like an electrical charge. Everyone from stars to role players bought in and delivered.
Johnson chuckled at the notion that he’s some sort of inspirational figure. He simply took advantage of an opportunity.
“My team really appreciated what I did,” he said. “It just gave our team a lot of hope, to know that we have a chance to win this, and that with me at quarterback, I was doing it for them and not for myself. It was kind of stepping up for the team, stepping up for those injured guys that’s out for the year and just trying to make a run in the playoffs.”