Chip Walker didn’t know a
lot about Rio Johnson’s potential as a quarterback in the summer of
2005. But it didn’t take Walker long to decide that Johnson had an
intense desire to learn how to play position.
Walker, the head coach at
Sandy Creek High School in Tyrone, GA, allowed then-incoming-freshman
Johnson to accompany the varsity players to a seven-on-seven passing
camp in Atlanta at Georgia Tech. While Johnson didn’t participate in the
actual passing competition, what he did that day left an impression on
“He stood behind the
huddle with our playbook in his hands,’’ Walker said. “He went over
every play just as we were ready to run them. I think he did that the
whole time we were there.
“That’s when I kind of
thought he had a chance to be pretty good. I didn’t know how good, but I
knew he had a chance.’’
“I learned the whole
offense in two days,’’ Johnson said, finishing the story.
It’s that kind of
diligence that earned Johnson a healthy dose of action on the Sandy
Creek varsity as a sophomore. He came of age late in the season when,
after replacing the injured veteran starter in third quarter of a state
playoff contest, he completed nine-of-16 passes with five balls getting
dropped, according to Walker.
The 6-foot-3, 185-pounder
graduated to the starting job in 2007, completing 122 of 222 passes for
1,710 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Johnson watched the East
Carolina Pirates defeat Boise State following his junior season in the
Sheraton Hawaii Bowl, but knew little else about the school’s football
program. That all changed as Johnson and his prep teammates began spring
football practice in April.
The Sandy Creek roster
features as many as seven major-college prospects, including Johnson and
highly touted wide receiver Braxton Lane. Lane may have actually been
the player who first prompted ECU co-offensive coordinator and offensive
line coach Steve Shankweiler to drop by a Sandy Creek practice in the
“I told Coach Shankweiler,
‘You need to watch this kid. He’s got a chance to be pretty good,’’’
Walker said. “He watched him and told me they wanted to get him on
campus so that (ECU quarterbacks and co-offensive coordinator) Coach
(Todd) Fitch can watch him throw.’’
Johnson had his command
performance before Fitch in Greenville during ECU’s summer camp in
mid-June. He impressed Fitch enough that the day after Johnson headed
back home to Georgia, the Pirates extended a scholarship offer.
“I kind of knew if I did
real well at camp that they would offer me,’’ Johnson said. “So once I
saw I did kind of good at camp I was kind of anticipating they were
going to offer me. I talked to Coach Fitch and he seemed impressed with
everything I did.
“So I went home and talked
things over with my mom, my dad and my coach. It took me about a week to
announce it, but I pretty much knew I wanted to be a Pirate.
“I was real impressed with
the town of Greenville. It’s a real college-based town. I liked the
campus a lot. I also like the fact they have great crowds at their home
games and football is really the big thing there.’’
Last Wednesday, Johnson
became the fourth prep player to make a verbal commitment to join the
Pirates' recruiting class of 2009 over offers from Alabama-Birmingham
Walker said the Pirates
would likely redshirt Johnson as a true freshman in 2009, but would look
for him to begin contributing the following season.
“They told him he’d
probably redshirt, and then he’d have a chance,’’ Walker said.
“Obviously, having that early opportunity was appealing to him.’’
Football has been in
Johnson’s blood since childhood. He started playing the game in
recreation leagues at age 6 and learned many lessons about the game from
his godfather, former Buffalo Bills cornerback Nate Odoms.
“I would say I try to
emulate him in the way that I carry myself on the field,’’ Johnson said.
“I’m always trying to be a leader.’’
The commitment from
Johnson puts the Pirates a step closer to fulfilling a major need in
their recruiting efforts this season. With current veterans Patrick
Pinkney and Rob Kass set to complete their eligibility over the next two
years, and Brett Clay deciding to give up the sport, ECU’s only other
scholarship quarterback at the present is incoming freshman Josh Jordan.
Don’t be surprised if the
Pirates actually try to sign two quarterbacks in this class to bolster
the depth in that area for the future.