Aug. 31, 2015
CHARLOTTESVILLE -- When the visiting football team takes the field for its first offensive series Saturday afternoon in Pasadena, Calif., its quarterback will be a redshirt junior who was an unheralded prospect coming out of high school.
Matt Johns’ counterpart at the Rose Bowl will be Josh Rosen, a true freshman who enrolled at UCLA in January after a storied career at nearby St. John Bosco High School.
In the season-opener for both teams, the Cavaliers meet the 13th-ranked Bruins at 3:30 p.m. Eastern. During a press conference Monday at John Paul Jones Arena, Johns, who’s from Chalfont, Pa., was asked if he would have been prepared in 2012 to start UVa’s opener.
“I absolutely would have not been ready,” Johns said. “I can tell you that right now. And that’s just kudos to [Rosen]. That’s a talented player right there who’s able to come in and play right away.”
Physically and mentally, Johns said, he needed time to develop, and he’s gone through that process. And now, in his fourth year in the program, No. 15 enters the season as the Wahoos’ No. 1 quarterback.
The 6-5, 210-pound Johns won the starting job in spring practice, beating out Greyson Lambert, who transferred to Georgia after graduating from UVa this summer.
In 2014, Johns started the three games Lambert missed with an injury and came off the bench to play quarterback in six others. No such QB rotation is expected at UVa this season.
“It’s his team,” senior wide receiver Canaan Severin said of Johns, his close friend and roommate.
“Now we have just one guy, we can roll with it, and the whole team, the whole program, trusts in this guy, believes in this guy when we get in the huddle. I think that’s something special, and I think that’s a good thing for the quarterback to have and quarterback to know.”
Johns “knows we trust him, we believe in him, and I think that’s key,” Severin said. “When you have two [quarterbacks], you might have 50 guys thinking this guy, 50 guys thinking the other guy. But we’re all for 1-5. We’re all for Matt Johns. We believe in him.”
As a redshirt sophomore, Johns completed 89 of 162 yards for 1,109 yards and eight touchdowns, with five interceptions. His role might have been considerably smaller last year had UCLA not intercepted two Lambert passes and returned them for touchdowns in the first half of the season-opener at Scott Stadium.
That prompted the coaching staff to pull Lambert in favor of Johns, who entered with UVa trailing 21-3 late in the second quarter. Johns responded by throwing two touchdown passes and leading a spirited comeback. The Bruins ultimately prevailed 28-20, but not before Johns impressed his teammates and coaches.
That “was a game that Matt kind of showed that he had a little bit of stuff in him, and that he could eventually be a good player here,” head coach Mike London said Monday at JPJ.
“And now it's his chance. It's his chance to go out to their place and hopefully play a game that will allow us to be victorious … Matt’s been waiting for this moment, and this moment will be realized for him here in a few days.”
Johns said: “It’s exciting. This is what you dream about. Fortunately I was able to have three starts last year, so this isn’t my first-ever career start, so I think that helps, going into this game with experience. But at the same time it’s the start of a new season, and we’re excited to get out there and anxious to play UCLA.”
The ‘Hoos, whose home opener is Sept. 12 against 11th-ranked Notre Dame, are coming off a season in which they finished 5-7. Had they not turned the ball over so often, they might well have become bowl-eligible for the first time since 2011.
Between them, Lambert and Johns threw more interceptions (18) than touchdown passes (16), and UVa also lost eight fumbles. The Cavaliers cannot afford such mistakes this fall, said Johns, who believes his decision-making improved as the 2014 season progressed.
“Against Pittsburgh, I rolled out and threw an interception” on an ill-advised pass to tailback Taquan Mizzell, Johns recalled Monday.
“The next week we had a bye week, then we played Duke. I rolled out, and it was the same situation, one on one, guys running down the field, and I tucked it and ran out of bounds and got the first down. I just used that as a learning experience. There’ll be more learning curves this year, and I’ll just take it as it goes.”
Johns is a gifted scrambler, and Virginia’s coaches have not discouraged him from using that part of his skill set.
“They just tell me to let the game come to me,” Johns said. “I think if you force things, if you force throws or you force runs, then that’s when bad things happen.”
That he played well against the Bruins last season has boosted his confidence heading into the rematch, Johns acknowledged. “But at the same time they have a whole new team, and we have a whole new team. They have a very solid defense. They’re very good.”
From a team that finished 10-3 last season, UCLA returned eight starters on each side of the ball, as well as its kicker, punter and long-snapper. The biggest unknown about the Bruins is what to expect from the 6-4, 210-pound Rosen, who’s from Manhattan Beach, Calif.
Still, UVa middle linebacker Micah Kiser said, Rosen is “starting for a reason. No one’s taking a freshman quarterback lightly. He’s got great weapons around him. He’s a great player, so it should be a fun game.”
London said Virginia’s coaches have seen video of Rosen from his high school games, but “nothing substantive about what he is or what he does [now].”
The Cavaliers are familiar with UCLA offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone’s system, however, and they know Rosen has talented players around him, among them tailback Paul Perkins and wideout Jordan Payton.
Expect UVa defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta to try to rattle Rosen with multiple packages and a barrage of blitzes. In 2014, the Cavaliers forced 29 turnovers. Against UCLA last season in Charlottesville, the ‘Hoos sacked quarterback Brett Hundley five times.
“Coach Tenuta, that’s his philosophy. He likes to bring blitzes,” senior cornerback Demetrious Nicholson said Monday. “We don’t like to sit back. [Tenuta] likes to bring the intensity and be really aggressive out there. He calls the games that way, and that’s how he expects us to play.”
Kiser said: “I don’t think the game plan changes. We’re going to stop the run and then get after the quarterback as best we can.”
This is Mazzone’s fourth season with the Bruins. Head coach Jim Mora’s defensive coordinator, though, is new. Tom Bradley came to UCLA in February with more than 35 years of coaching experience, including 12 seasons as Penn State’s defensive coordinator.
Exactly what they’ll encounter from the Bruins’ defense Saturday, the Cavaliers are not sure.
“That’s another learning curve,” Johns said. “They’re going to give us looks that we probably haven’t seen before. That’s just part of the game. That’s where if you see something, you have to rely on your instincts and read the defense to the best of my ability and make plays accordingly.”
Johns’ teammates have confidence he’ll make the necessary adjustments.
“Matt just has that moxie, I guess,” Kiser said. “He’s just a gamer.”
Severin said: “We’re lucky to have a guy like Matt Johns who we can look up to, someone who can lead us, someone who brings that enthusiasm in the huddle. I’m excited. I’m excited to go to battle with him.”
Johns and Severin and their teammates put in untold hours during the offseason, strengthening their bodies and sharpening their skills. They haven’t forgotten how close Virginia came to a breakthrough season in 2014, and they do not want to experience similar frustration this fall.
“We’re trying to make this special,” Severin said.
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A 1985 graduate of UVA, White worked at the Richmond Times-Dispatch until July 2009. He was honored six times as the state's Sportswriter of the Year.
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