Matt Johns was third on the depth chart at quarterback heading into UVA’s season opener against UCLA last year, but when starter Greyson Lambert struggled in the first half, throwing two pick-sixes as the 10th-ranked Bruins built a 21-3 second-quarter lead, Johns was called into action.
The sophomore quietly got Virginia back into the game in what became a 28-20 loss, and Johns and Lambert would split snaps at QB the rest of the season.
Johns finally beat out Lambert for the starting job in the spring, prompting Lambert’s decision to transfer out, and since the Cavs have become Johns’ team.
“Matt was very instrumental in getting the team together, getting the receivers together, getting the offensive line and making sure they were working out with the defensive linemen. That’s a leadership part that maybe in the past we haven’t had. He’s shown himself to be a guy that’s not just concerned about what he does, what he has to do, but also the surrounding cast, and I believe that’s why our players respect him so much and call him a leader,” UVA coach Mike London said.
Johns acknowledged that he has taken to the leadership role that comes to being the team’s starting quarterback. The chemistry that comes with player-organized drills is “almost as important as the on-the-field stuff,” Johns said.
“The coaches are going to coach you to what they want. They have their x’s and o’s and structures that they want to see. But in order for all of that to blend together, there needs to be chemistry off the field,” Johns said.
After the spring, Johns and other team leaders got together to coordinate their efforts to build team unity.
“It’s hard to relay that message to the whole team at one time. Kids are going to hear it, it’s going to go in one ear and out the other,” Johns said. “But if I’m in the quarterbacks’ ear every day relaying the same message, and I have Canaan Severin relaying to the wide receivers the same message every day, and I have Smoke (tailback Taquan Mizzell) relaying to the running backs every day, and I have Maurice Canady and Tre Nicholson every day saying the same message, over time it will just blend together.
“That’s what we’re really tried to do, and hopefully we reap the benefits in the future.”
Offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild has tweaked the approach on offense to better take advantage of Johns’ strengths – his ability and willingness to get the ball downfield, his ball-handling skills on fakes, his talents in being able to use his feet to create extra time in the pocket and throw on the run.
Fairchild will have Johns under center a lot more than he had Johns and Lambert under center in 2014, when the UVA offense used more three- and four-receiver sets to try to spread the field.
“I’ll take the blame, last year I think we undersold ourselves, we got a little finesse-y in the run game,” said Fairchild, who in his defense was trying to scheme around having a young and thin roster on the offensive line.
“Now looking at it, we went back this spring and we got back under center to try to pound some downhill runs. When you do that, when you run the football, obviously everything else feeds off of that, so now you get some nice throws for the quarterback off nakeds and play-action, you get some nice downfield opportunities off some shot plays. Running the ball better, and it’s a team game, so running the ball better is going to help our passing game,” Fairchild said.
Johns is looking forward to running the new-look UVA offense.
“A more power run game opens up the play-action, things along those lines. It adds more characteristics to our offense and will hopefully make us more successful,” Johns said.
“I love the system, so I’m going to play to the system, and that’s just how it works. We’re going pro-style, so I’m doing my seven-step drop or turn around and show the ball and give them a good fake, things along those lines. I would say it’s good for my skill set,” Johns said.
Johns will have to improve upon his accuracy. He completed 54.9 percent of his passes in 2014, throwing for 1,109 yards and eight touchdowns, with five interceptions, on 162 pass attempts, seeing action in all 12 UVA games, three of them starts.
Fairchild offered some rope for Johns to explain the low completion percentage in 2014, pointing out the issues with the O-line as impacting play-calling and execution. With more experience and depth on the line in 2015, and a bevy of weapons among the skill players, at wideout and tailback, in particular, Johns should have a lot more to work with.
London, for his part, is more than ready to go to war with Johns as the linchpin of the UVA offense.
“He has command of the offense in every way,” London said. “That off-the-field leadership part was indicative of how our guys got together and worked out. He continues to have that type of presence, not only in the huddle, but just simple things. You want leaders to have those types of abilities, and he has done that. He has separated himself from the standpoint of our players having a tremendous amount of confidence in him.”
AFP editor Chris Graham interviews UVA quarterback Matt Johns.