Cole Johnson’s 2021 stat line is enough to make anyone turn their head.
The James Madison quarterback got the job done through the air, completing 68% of his passes for 3,779 yards with 41 touchdowns against just four interceptions on 422 passing attempts, leading the Dukes to 12 wins between the regular season and the postseason.
The team’s only regular season loss was by one point to Villanova when they fell 28-27 to the Wildcats, and they made it all the way to the FCS Championship semifinals where the Dukes lost to the North Dakota State Bison by a small margin, 20-14.
Johnson says that multiple factors played a role into he and the team’s success, but that having quarterbacks coach Tino Sunseri, who came over from the University of Alabama where he was a graduate assistant, was something he felt helped him grow as a quarterback after waiting for his opportunity.
“He really opened my eyes to a lot more of how to read defenses, understand the game of football and play quarterback at a high level,” Johnson said. “I had to sit on the bench for four years and wait my turn and there was a lot of patience involved in that. That first season coming back with COVID going on and playing in the spring, I got a lot more confident that season and my confidence really peaked this past year and I’m super confident in my game and my abilities now.”
The offensive scheme James Madison runs requires the quarterback to shoulder a lot of responsibility, and that’s something Johnson is happy to have participated in. He believes a lot of it will translate to the NFL, where he’s hoping to get his shot.
“They put a lot of responsibility on the quarterback in this offense,” Johnson said. “I was responsible for calling all the protections and calling out who I want the line to block, making a hot call, changing routes or making an audible when I see fit. If it was RPO, we could pull it and throw it or pull it and run it. I think you’re going to see a lot of that transition to the next level.”
Like the several other quarterback prospects who declared for the 2022 NFL Draft, the stretch of time from January to April for Johnson has been occupied by a lot of pre-draft training. He’s spent a lot of time working with former Penn State passer and current quarterback trainer Anthony Morelli to prepare himself to make the transition.
“I’ve been getting ready for more of a pro-style system,” Johnson said. “I think I played maybe 10 under-center snaps in my college career, that’s how a lot of college football offenses are, a lot of plays from the shotgun, a lot of RPOs. There are some differences at the next level where there’s some play-action, deep drops, sitting in the pocket. It’s going to be a bit of a jump and a change but I think I’m ready for that and an increased speed of the game and different concepts – I think I can pick up an offense relatively quickly.”
One of the things Johnson is up against in this draft class is the fact he played in the FCS. There has long been a trend of FCS talent being passed over due to the ‘lesser competition’ narrative or the thought that FCS players simply don’t present the same level of talent as FBS players do.
“I do think there’s a certain amount of overlook that goes on, as far as people being overlooked at the next level,” Johnson said.
But he also thinks progress is being made as far as the stigma goes.
“If you look at the past five or six years though with guys like Trey Lance, Carson Wentz, Jimmy Garoppolo, FCS talents who have done some good things in the NFL, we’re starting to get some more looks,” Johnson said. “But if you look at the top to bottom of FCS, I wouldn’t say the competition is as good as the FBS level but there are some top tier teams like South Dakota State, North Dakota State, Montana, Montana State, those top 10 teams could compete with some of those FBS teams and they have some good talent.”
Regardless of how things play out as Johnson is currently projected to be a late-round pick or a priority undrafted free agent signing after getting a lot of good feedback from NFL teams after pro day, the signal-caller is confident in the improvements he’s made and his ability to make the most of a chance at the next level.
“My play style is a combination of intelligence and I throw with a lot of touch and accuracy,” said Johnson. “I think I’m the biggest competitor and leader out there and that’s kind of shown through my past year and a half of play. As I’ve gotten more reps, I’ve just gotten better and better and under the right coaching and offensive system, I feel like I could be really productive and play really well so I hope I get the chance to develop.”
- May 26, 2022
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