Few outside the program gave any thought to the third-stringer, Matt Johns, an unheralded redshirt sophomore from Chalfont, Pa., where as a three-star recruit he threw for 4,800 yards and 46 touchdowns and was a member of the National Honor Society and piano player.
But it was Johns who London gave the ball to after Lambert struggled in the season opener against then-Top 10 UCLA, and when Johns led the team back to the brink of an upset in what turned out to be a 28-20 loss, the lithe 6’5”, 210-pounder was at the top of the depth chart to stay.
In the weeks since, Johns has been listed as a co-#1 at quarterback with Lambert, and since the top recruit Lambert, who had offers from the likes of Alabama, Auburn, Clemson and Georgia coming out of high school, went down with an ankle injury in the BYU game in Week 4, Johns has been the man, including getting the start last week on the road at defending ACC Coastal champ Duke, even with Lambert fully available, according to London.
Johns availed himself well in the Duke game, completing 22 of his 45 pass attempts for a career-high 325 yards in the 20-13 loss. For the season, Johns, in seven games, including three starts, has completed 55.8 percent of his passes (82-for-147) for 1,012 yards and eight touchdowns, with five interceptions, and a passer-efficiency rating of 124.8, good for eighth in the ACC.
The one difference between Johns and Lambert is completion percentage – Lambert is completing 64.0 percent of his passes in 2014 – but that is as much a function of selectivity as anything. Lambert, with the much stronger arm, is more likely to hit his checkdown targets, averaging just 5.8 yards per attempt on his throws that are predominantly short- and intermediate-range, while Johns is more likely to press the ball downfield, averaging 6.9 yards per attempt even with the lower completion percentage.
There are still growing pains, as was evident in the second half against Duke, when Johns and offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild couldn’t connect on a play call in one instance that forced a timeout, and on the fourth-down play that would determine Virginia’s ultimate fate, when Johns had to take a delay-of-game penalty because he had trouble getting the play call right in the huddle.
Asked after the game what he needs to do to improve, Johns looked down and said, essentially, everything.
“The quarterback position in general, you have to take ownership when the team doesn’t score. As a leader, that’s what you have to do,” Johns said.
– Column by Chris Graham