Johnson and Johnson: Eyes on quarterbacks as Weber State hosts James Madison
When freshman quarterback Bronson Barron took a hit to his leg in Weber State’s first drive of the second half last week at Dixie State, it changed the Wildcats’ trajectory headed into its top-10 home matchup against James Madison this week.
Barron’s injury is to his MCL, WSU head coach Jay Hill said.
“He’s walking around out there, it’s not like he’s in some straight brace or something and can’t move. He’s walking, he’s doing good,” Hill said.
While Barron’s knee is improving, WSU is preparing to play without him when the ball kicks off at 6 p.m. Saturday in Stewart Stadium.
“The reality is we have to approach the game that way,” Hill said. “But I’m not a doctor, I’m not going to say when he can and can’t come back. We’re going to get him in there as soon as they tell me I can.”
The likely matchup at quarterback: Sixth-year senior Cole Johnson under center for No. 3 James Madison, and transfer junior Randall Johnson taking snaps for No. 9 Weber State.
After biding his time for four seasons, Cole Johnson got the reins of the JMU offense in the shortened spring season of 2021. In eight games, he completed 66% of his passes for 204 yards per outing, throwing 11 touchdowns and seven interceptions.
“I think he came into the fall with a lot of confidence because he had success at the tail end of the spring,” JMU head coach Curt Cignetti said.
In two games this season, Cole Johnson is 44 of 58 (76%) for 677 yards (338.5 per game), nine touchdowns and zero interceptions.
Daniel Lin, Daily News-Record James Madison quarterback Cole Johnson (12) looks for a receiver under pressure from the North Dakota defense during an FCS quarterfinal game May 2, 2021, in Harrisonburg, Va.
“He’s just taken his game to another level. I think we’re putting him in some good positions, too,” Cignetti said. “We threw a lot of RPOs in this last game. He makes quick reads, he processes quickly, he has a lot of confidence in his receivers … He’s making good decisions and continues to improve.
“He’s a really calm guy. He doesn’t get rattled when the bullets are flying.”
Hill and company at WSU have definitely noticed.
“They’re throwing the ball down the field. He’s got good weapons around him. He does a great job staying in the pocket, staying poised, he delivers a good ball,” Hill said.
Antwane Wells Jr. is at the top of the receiving list across two wins over Morehead State (68-10) and Maine (55-7). He has 12 catches for 239 yards and three touchdowns.
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Kris Thornton (10 catches, 153 yards) and Scott Bracey (six for 97) round out the balanced attack. Sophomore running back Solomon Vanhorse, the fourth-top receiver in two games (seven catches for 58 yards) has been suspended.
Randall Johnson secured a spot in WSU football memory with a 50-yard Hail Mary to defeat Northern Arizona in the spring season, and the Wildcats are hoping last week’s performance at Dixie State was a sign that he’s ready to take a big step forward.
“He’s throwing the ball better now. He’s had a year in the program to see more pass coverages and blitzes and defenses. Just the comfort level overall of the offense should encourage him to get better and better,” Hill said. “There was a time when he was coming out of junior college, he was one of the top JC quarterbacks in the country … we just need to get him back honed in on what he’s done.”
After Barron’s departure and a spark from a fake punt, Randall Johnson led WSU’s offense to three touchdown drives to balloon the score from 14-3 to 34-3 before sophomore Kylan Weisser subbed in at QB.
The run game took care of Randall Johnson’s first scoring drive but, on the second, he completed a 7-yard hit to Rashid Shaheed stationed near the sideline, dumped a 31-yard screen to Damon Bankston, then hit Shaheed streaking down the sideline for 24 yards in consecutive plays.
He finished 5 of 8 passing for 89 yards. Randall Johnson also ripped a 29-yard run that set up the final score before he was subbed out, and the Wildcats took a couple of very deep shots downfield that didn’t come together.
“Always, the goal is to try to get the ball downfield. Just being able to utilize our speed on offense. With Randall being the quarterback, we all know he has a very powerful arm and we plan on utilizing that a lot this week,” Shaheed said. “He’s going to be ready and we plan to have a lot of explosive plays.”
Shaheed is foremost among those weapons who WSU is constantly trying to get the ball more often. Junior transfer receiver Randal Grimes has shown some glimpses of how much he can boost the offense (he has four catches for 56 yards this season), Ty MacPherson caught a 32-yard touchdown from Barron at Dixie State, and tight end Justin Malone led receivers with three catches for 45 yards last week.
“So far, I feel like he’s embraced his role really well. He’s always ready, as you saw last game. He came in and played really well for us,” Shaheed said about Randall Johnson. “He’s always ready, he works hard, watches a lot of film and that showed. I think that will carry on for this week and however long he’ll be playing for us.