QB De’Andre Johnson’s winding path brings him to USFL

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New Jersey Generals quarterback De’Andre Johnson seized his moment last Sunday night.

With his team down 10-3 at halftime to the Philadelphia Stars, Generals head coach Mike Riley made the call to put Johnson under center for the second half.

Johnson and his running backs, Trey Williams and Darius Victor, proceeded to impose their will on the Stars with one run play after another. The Generals climbed back into contention and eventually, their rushing attack wore down the Stars.

It was Johnson’s four-yard touchdown run that sealed a 24-16 Generals win, moving them to 2-1 and first place in the USFL’s North Division.

The Generals racked up a stellar 265 rushing yards in the victory. Johnson chipped in 92 of those rushing yards, along with throwing for 130 more.

Through the opening weeks of the USFL season, Johnson – the dual threat – and Luis Perez – the traditional passer – have been used interchangeably to lead the Generals offense.

With the Generals’ emphasis on the run game and Johnson’s own role to play in that, he hasn’t had as many opportunities to show his passing skills (14/22 for 237 yards through three weeks).

But as he navigates working in a two-QB system while contributing primarily, for now, as a rusher, Johnson is simply focused on getting the job done.

“Regardless of whether you’re running the ball, throwing the ball – at the end of the day, being a quarterback is understanding the offense and moving the offense efficiently without turning the ball over,” Johnson told NBC Sports this week.

“That’s what I take pride in. Whatever plays Coach calls, I’ll try and execute it to the maximum of my ability. … If you’ve prepared the proper way – don’t get me wrong, going into each week, I know I’m gonna to, at some time, get some passing plays and stuff like that just based off how the game is going.

“But I still prepare the same way. I still go over every play that we have. Whether it’s running the ball, passing the ball, it’s just being ready for whatever Coach calls. At the end of the day, these games change and sometimes, you need to adapt. And right now, our running game is holding us down.”

Is that unit in for another big outing this weekend? This Saturday on Peacock, the Generals face the winless Pittsburgh Maulers (0-3). Pittsburgh was shut out last week by the Michigan Panthers, 24-0, and allowed nearly 250 rushing yards in the process.

It appears to be a quintessential “trap game.” No need to bring that term up with Johnson, though. It seems he already knows.

“Even though they haven’t won a game, teams like this are scary,” he said of the Maulers. “They don’t have nothing to lose. So now, when they go out and play, they’re playing free, playing with some fight left in them.

“At the end of the day, they’re still trying to climb up. If they start winning out, they can get back to being a (playoff) contender. So, I’ve just been staying on my teammates to make sure we don’t take this game lackadaisical. It’s a short turn-around for us. We’ve got to come out with the right intensity.”

RELATED: Everything you need to know about the 2022 USFL season – Teams, key dates, TV schedule, how to watch and more

From a young age, Johnson recognized that football could be a path for him.

After his family (which includes a younger brother, Nebraska cornerback Tyreke Johnson) moved to Florida during his childhood, he began to play the sport at multiple positions. When eighth grade rolled around, he had decided on becoming a quarterback full-time.

With that, he stopped playing basketball and running track. Under the tutelage of a trainer, Johnson became a fixture at camps and clinics, soaking up all he could about being a QB.

“That’s when I took it serious,” Johnson said. “I was like, ‘You know what, next year, I want to go to high school and be a four-year starter. I want to get offers. I want to go to school.’

“We started making goal sheets and spoke things into existence. That’s how we got to where we are today.”

De’Andre Johnson went on to become one of Florida’s top high school quarterbacks at First Coast High School in Jacksonville. Once that part of his career was complete, he set his sights on playing at his dream school, Florida State.

On June 24, 2015, during his freshman year, Johnson was involved in an altercation with a woman at a Tallahassee, Florida bar.

Surveillance video of the altercation shows Johnson striking the woman. He was subsequently charged with misdemeanor battery and dismissed from the FSU football program.

In the aftermath, Johnson apologized for his actions, while his attorney alleged that the woman had called Johnson racial epithets and provoked him leading up to the incident. The attorney also said Johnson was not the initial aggressor but was “owning this” and learning from the experience.

Johnson ultimately entered a plea deal. As part of the deal, he pleaded guilty, served six months of probation, entered a brief work program, and paid court fees and restitution to the victim.

As he sought to rebuild his career, Johnson also focused on sharing his lessons from the experience with younger players, in hopes they wouldn’t make the same mistake he did.

“We all go to seminars or the camps where you might hear older players preach ‘You have to understand where you’re at, understand where you are,’ but it doesn’t really click in until you go through it or you see someone that’s close to your age that’s gone through it,” he said. “You’re like, ‘He’s kind of like me; if he can go through it, I can go through it.’

“I had a chance to travel around the country … and talk to different kids and their parents about, once (their kids) get to college, what to expect … (to) understand who you are and what you represent.”

He says he still hears from some of those younger players to this day, thanking him for his insights. His talks with them also gave him a future goal: Founding a non-profit for juvenile youth in need of a second chance.

In doing so, he hopes to show them that there are many ways to succeed in life.

“They just need big brothers and the influence of people around them just to believe in them and help them understand that it doesn’t have to be sports,” he said.

RELATED: 2022 USFL TV schedule – Dates, times, channels, live streams for the 10-week inaugural football season

After his dismissal from Florida State, Johnson embarked on a circuitous college career.

Johnson sat out for a year before playing the 2016 season at East Mississippi Community College, where he became a focus of the Netflix football series “Last Chance U.”

Following that season, it appeared that LSU was his next stop.

“A lot of people don’t know that – I had an offer from LSU,” Johnson said. “But Les Miles had got fired a week later, when I was going down there to commit actually. So I didn’t really know what was going on. I kind of had a feeling based on what happened at Florida State, a lot of schools weren’t going to recruit me so that was kind of tough on me.”

A visit to Alabama followed. While he didn’t land with the Crimson Tide, he did find a way back to Div. I football.

Lane Kiffin, then Alabama’s offensive coordinator, had seen Johnson throw during his visit. And after Kiffin left Alabama to become the new head coach at Florida Atlantic, he called Johnson and told him he wanted to sign him.

But while FAU was, to Johnson, a “great experience,” his time there included more adversity. Blood clots in his arm sidelined him for much of the 2017 season. His arm had gone numb while playing in the season opener, but he only discovered he had clots during a doctor’s visit the following week before a road trip to play Wisconsin.

“We finally get to the ultrasound and she’s like, ‘Thank God you came in today.’ I’m like, ‘Why do you say that?’,” he said. “She’s like, ‘Because you have blood clots here and here in your arm, and I’m afraid that if you got on that plane tomorrow, you probably could’ve died if they would’ve traveled to your chest.’”

That led to going on blood thinners and being unable to workout for an extended period of time. He says he basically had to learn how to throw all over again after that. He spent 2018 with the Owls, but decided to make one last transfer to Texas Southern to close out his college career in 2019.

Two years later, Johnson’s pro career finally began in The Spring League. While Johnson had continued to train up to this point, it was more with the goal of a NFL workout in mind.

But a call from Larry Kirksey, his future head coach with the TSL’s Sea Lions, changed his plans. Looking back, Johnson says the TSL was much like the USFL – with one big difference.

“You only had a week to practice with the team and then go out there and play a six-week season,” Johnson said. “I learned a whole new playbook in a week.”

But the TSL did the job in getting Johnson back into game flow after not playing for two years.

“It was all about getting a feel for it, and once again, understanding – situation awareness, where to go with the ball, dial in and prepare the right way,” he said.

“… Going forward in the USFL, I feel I’m more prepared than I’ve ever been.”

More prepared to be a top quarterback? More prepared to do even more good off the field? More prepared to seize his moments?

If De’Andre Johnson has his way, it’ll be all of the above.

First and 10 with De’Andre Johnson

10 quick questions to get to know the new talent of the USFL

Pre-game ritual?

“It just depends on how I’m feeling throughout the day. If I’m real calm, I put some Phil Collins on, Fleetwood Mac, stuff like that. If I’m feeling real amped up and ready to go, I’ll put some Lil’ Durk on. But that’s probably it. Just chill in the locker room. I don’t really do too much.”

Post-game ritual?

“I like to go home and get something to eat after the game. A steak and sweet potatoes.”

Favorite food … Although you may have just answered that question?

“Nice steak and sweet potatoes. I’m a big wine drinker. Give me some wine and I’ll be good.”

Favorite football player?

“That’s hard. I don’t really have a favorite football player. I’d say my favorite (sports) player would be LeBron (James). I’d love to meet LeBron one day.”

Favorite movie?

“Paid in Full and Friday Night Lights.”

Favorite vacation spot?

“No, I don’t (have one) yet. I really haven’t had the opportunity to travel a lot lately, man, just based off the schedule with football. But this summer, I plan on traveling to Mexico. I want to go to Greece, Costa Rica – I just wanna go everywhere, man.”

Most famous person you’ve met outside of football?

“My great-aunt, my father’s aunt, was (music producer) Sylvia Robinson, who was the founder of (Sugar Hill Records). I’d probably say that’s the most famous person I’ve ever met in my eyes, that really founded hip-hop. Also, my best friend’s uncle is Rick Ross. Actually, when I was going through my incident at Florida State, Rick was one of the people that reached out to me. Through my best friend, we’ve kind of had a relationship ever since.”

How would your family and friends describe you as a person?

“They’d describe me as being laid-back. They might say I’m shy a little bit. Outgoing. They’d probably say I’m real stylish.”

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be and why?

“Honestly, I feel like God has got a life already written. I don’t really have any regrets. Whatever is meant is gonna be meant for you and we’re all put on this Earth to go through some things that shape us into who we’re gonna be at the end. But the biggest thing I’d probably say… I’d not go out that night, at Florida State.”

Name one thing about yourself that not everybody knows about you.

“That’s tough right there… I’ll probably say I’m real thoughtful. In a way where I think of everything – I’m an overthinker, in a way, to where I’ll over-analyze every situation possible before acting on it, if that makes any sense.”

How to watch USFL Week 4 – Generals vs. Maulers, Gamblers vs. Breakers

Friday, May 6

  • Philadelphia Stars (1-2) vs. Michigan Panthers (1-2), 10:00 p.m. ET on FS1

Saturday, May 7

  • New Jersey Generals (2-1) vs. Pittsburgh Maulers (0-3), 2:30 p.m. ET on Peacock

  • Tampa Bay Bandits (2-1) vs. Birmingham Stallions (3-0), 7 p.m. ET on FOX

Sunday, May 8

  • Houston Gamblers (1-2) vs. New Orleans Breakers (2-1), 3 p.m. ET on NBC and Peacock

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QB De’Andre Johnson’s winding path brings him to USFL originally appeared on NBCSports.com