Tyler Johnston signed a football scholarship with UAB instead of South Alabama. UAB is a much better program than South Alabama at this point. Those two statements are not unrelated.
The Blazers beat the Jaguars 35-3 Saturday at Legion Field in a game that may have been even more lopsided than the score would suggest. The Blazers were better in every facet of the game, including the home team’s spirit, body language and general confidence that they were going to win the first meeting ever between the two in-state teams.
But one of the areas that could not have been more different was quarterback.
Anyone who follows the sport knows that the winning formula begins with having a quality quarterback. All the better if that quarterback happens to be a local kid. Better still if he’s the most successful high school quarterback in state history.
Johnston, the former Spanish Fort High School star, meets all those descriptions.
But instead of signing with South Alabama — which did recruit him hard — he chose to join the Blazers. Yes, there were family connections to head coach Bill Clark and the UAB staff. But he’s exactly the kind of player South Alabama has to keep home in order to elevate the program.
On Saturday, Johnston completed 22 of 27 passes for 313 yards and three touchdowns. He also ran for 26 yards on seven carries.
His combined record as a starting quarterback in high school and college is now 42-1, with the only loss being a stellar performance at Texas A&M last season. Among the 42 wins are championships at both the high school and college level.
It’s not an overstatement to say he’s the most accomplished high school quarterback in Alabama history. Now, he’s doing many of the same remarkable things at the college level.
Yes, I know about the high school exploits of Hall of Famers Bart Starr and Kenny Stabler; Heisman Trophy winners Pat Sullivan and Jameis Winston; national championship winners AJ McCarron, Jake Coker, Tee Martin, Jay Barker, Steadman Shealy, Jeff Rutledge, Gary Rutledge, Pat Trammell and Lloyd Nix; and first-round picks Philip Rivers and JaMarcus Russell.
I know about local legends Scott Hunter, Richard Todd, Dameyune Craig and Kadarius Toney. I even know about Auburn freshman sensation Bo Nix, who has Auburn off to a 4-0 after an impressive win at Texas A&M last week.
But I also know Johnston was more accomplished than any of them as a high school player. And he left the Gulf Coast, an area that has a Group of 5 college football program that is committed to winning, to join another Group of 5 program from inside the state.
That’s not the entire reason why UAB beat South Alabama by 32 points Saturday but it contributed greatly.
When Johnston quarterbacks, his team wins. He was 35-0 in high school, including two state championships. It would have been three titles if he hadn’t missed games with a knee injury. He’s 7-1 at UAB. He’s almost guaranteed to continue his winning ways over the next two and a half seasons, and there’s already buzz about his future as a pro.
Meanwhile, South Alabama continues to search for that one quarterback around whom a team and a program can be built. It could be that Cephus Johnson is that person. The redshirt sophomore from Davidson High School has all the tools to be a star quarterback. He’s smart, athletic, a talented thrower and an all-around good guy.
But to watch Johnson and Johnston on the same field is an exercise in contrasts. Johnston plays like he’s in his childhood backyard trying to beat his brother in whatever game they’ve dreamed up. When the Blazers need six yards for a first down and the play breaks down, Johnston seems to almost always stumble for 6.5 yards but never seven yards. There’s never any doubt he’s trying to win, but he does it with an attitude that makes it fun for everyone on the field with him.
Watching Johnson play for South Alabama I often find myself wanting to tell him to just have some fun. Don’t worry about making a mistake. Throw a ball end just once instead of a perfect spiral. Act like it’s a pick-up game with your buddies. Make a crazy play. Accept that everyone makes mistakes, so don’t worry about it. And when it’s time to use your considerable athletic ability and run the ball, do it with a little joy and reckless abandon.
There’s still time for Johnson to be that program-making quarterback, and I’m certainly cheering for him because of his high character and because it would be great for the program for a local kid to be the face of the organization.
If not Johnson, then maybe current Daphne quarterback Trent Battle or Fairhope quarterback Riley Leonard could be that person.
It’s probably asking too much for any of those guys to be the next Tyler Johnston. But watching him star for UAB Saturday sure made me wonder what could have been with him in a South Alabama uniform.
Randy Kennedy, who has been a leading voice on the Gulf Coast sports scene for 17 years, writes a weekly column for Lagniappe. Follow him on Twitter: @kennedy_randy.
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