Being a college football coach means it’s never too early to start thinking about your quarterback competition for the 2022 season.
On Wednesday, the future of James Franklin’s quarterback room at Penn State got more interesting.
For the first time since his hastily assembled 2014 recruiting class, the Nittany Lions coach is preparing to bring aboard two quarterbacks in the same cycle as four-star Oregon signal-caller Michael Johnson Jr. verbally committed to Penn State.
“My dream is to just be the best football player I can be, the best person I can be,” Johnson said in a video produced by The Oregonian that was published Wednesday. “Definitely up to this point this was the hardest decision I had to make in my life.”
The video ends with a Penn State logo superimposed over his high school football field.
Johnson is in line to join New Jersey four-star quarterback Ta’Quan Roberson in the 2019 class, which is now up to 14 commitments.
The top-rated player in Oregon according to the 247Sports Composite rankings, Johnson chose the Lions over four other finalists in Florida State, Miami, North Carolina State and Oregon State among his 30-plus offers. The 6-foot-2, 195-pounder has been named an Under Armour All-American and checks in as the nation’s No. 259 overall recruit and the No. 6 dual-threat quarterback.
Roberson, who committed back in October, is just behind Johnson at No. 281 and No. 8, respectively, in the Composite.
Though Johnson will play his senior season some 2,800 miles away from Happy Valley, travel is nothing new to him and his family. His father, Michael Johnson Sr., was a long-time NFL coach, including the offensive coordinator for the San Francisco 49ers, and moved around the country throughout his career.
Johnson Jr. played his first two seasons of high school at The King’s Academy in California, where his father was the head coach. When Johnson Sr. took a job as wide receivers coach at Oregon in 2017, his son enrolled at Sheldon High School in Eugene, just up the road from the Ducks’ Autzen Stadium.
The Ducks, however, already have a 2019 quarterback committed. And having a coach’s son on scholarship at that position can be a tough minefield for a program to navigate.
“I wanted this to be his decision,” Johnson Sr. said in the commitment video. “But I wanted it to be based on logic. Facts. Not based on the colors of a uniform or the history of a football school. Look at the opportunity to play. Look at the offense in which they were going to run.”
For Penn State, Johnson’s upbringing as the son of a veteran coach could pay dividends.
“I think his leadership skills are good,” Johnson Sr. said. “I think he understands how to rally people, how to affect other people, make them beter.
On the field, Johnson has racked up 5,565 passing yards, 1,878 rushing yards, 97 total touchdowns and only 15 interceptions in his three high school seasons, according to 247Sports.
“He’s really fast. He can change directions very quickly,” Sheldon coach Josh Line said in the video. “He’s got a huge arm. He can make huge plays. He can make something happen when there’s really nothing there.
“His potential is the NFL.”
It’s a pedigree he hopes leads him to be the Lions’ starting quarterback down the road, though he will face plenty of competition.
Penn State looks to be set with Tommy Stevens in line to take over in 2019, when Johnson would arrive on campus. Barring unexpected developments, an open competition would take place in 2020 with the inside track belonging to Sean Clifford, who enters this year’s training camp as the third-stringer, battling Jake Zembiec and true freshman Will Levis for that job. Clifford would have two years of eligibility left at that point.
And then there’s Roberson, who is set to star this month at DePaul Catholic High School. Should both Johnson and Roberson ultimately sign with Penn State in the winter, history suggests both won’t finish their careers there.
The only other time the Lions brought in two quarterbacks in the same class under Franklin was under drastically different circumstances.
Michael O’Connor was one of the top pocket passers in the 2014 class and playing his senior season at Florida football factory IMG Academy when he committed to then-Lions coach Bill O’Brien.
Two weeks before he was set to enroll at Penn State in January 2014, O’Brien took the Houston Texans head coaching job.
Franklin was hired a few days before classes began and, with limited options, O’Connor stuck with the Lions, having known Franklin and his staff through the recruiting process.
That wasn’t, however, going to stop Franklin from bringing the quarterback he had previously recruited to Vanderbilt along with him — Trace McSorley.
McSorley pulled ahead of O’Connor on the depth chart in their first training camp together and O’Connor transferred out after the season.
Prior to that, the Lions signed two quarterbacks in 2013 (Christian Hackenberg and Tyler Ferguson) and 2010 (Rob Bolden and Paul Jones). Going back a little further, they inked Zack Mills and Zac Wasserman in 2000. The first name in those groups became starters — with each making some Penn State history — while the second became footnotes.
How this story plays out in 2019 and beyond will be up to Johnson and Roberson.
“I play to win,” Johnson said in the video. “I feel when the competition gets harder, I think I play better.”
Reach Derek Levarse at 570-991-6396 or on Twitter @TLdlevarse