When De’Andre Johnson stepped onto the Jones High practice field for the National Underclassmen Combine in Orlando last April, he vowed one thing. The practice field sits in the shadows of the Citrus Bowl, home of the FHSAA football championships, and Johnson, just an 8th-grader at the time said he would be back.
“I’m real excited,” Johnson said this week while preparing for Class 7A championship against Bradenton Manatee at 7 p.m., just as the sayer had said. “As a matter of fact, on that interview I envisioned playing here with no doubt. I was going, straight there.”
At the time of that interview, Johnson was a mere 16-pound, 6-foot youngster at the end of his eighth-grade year at Jacksonville Landmark Middle School, but his actions made his words worthy of at least a partial listen.
The frail but exceptionally athletic QB stood out among all the other 8th- and 9th-grade quarterbacks in that early session, and it wasn’t because of his bright orange shoes, although those were certainly did not go unnoticed.
Johnson had this calm, confident demeanor about him, whether he was just walking across the field or tossing the football. He looked as if he belonged, had lived the part forever, and didn’t really seem to belong with the other 14- and 15-year-old QBs at the combine.
He was head-and-shoulders above all the other quarterbacks in attendance and as the weekend progressed and the sophomores and juniors eventually took their turns, thoughts kept going back to Johnson.
He quite possibly was the best quarterback in the entire field that weekend. He came marching in scrawny little no-name QB and marched out a bit heavier with the QB MVP medal and an NUC plaque.
That was just the beginning. He thought he was going to Jacksonville Trinity Christian School at the time of the combine, but ended up at First Coast, where he has guided his squad to an undefeated season.
He’s had a phenomenal year. Johnson has completed 150-of-268 passes for 2,750 yards and 28 touchdowns. He can also move with the ball just to keep defenses honest, and has six rushing touchdowns.
“I decided to go to First Coast just because it was a better football team, had better players and better coaches,” Johnson said. “
That decision gave First Coast one more “better player,” as it turned out, as he started eclipsing freshman records with each game as the season progressed.
“It hasn’t really been that tough,” said Johnson, who expects big things and sets big goals for himself. “It’s the way I handle myself that makes it easier. I just play football. The accolades will come with it.”
And so will college offers. Too soon, you say. Clemson coach Dabo Swinney didn’t think so, stepping in and offering a verbal scholarship pitch about midway through the current season. A 15-year-old with an ACC football scholarship offer. Seems unfathomable.
“It was my first verbal offer, so yeah, I was excited,” Johnson said. “It motivated me to work harder. Was I surprised? I guess not really. We go through the preparations and as a team, we just all go out there and play our game. I just do my thing, be poised and patient and make good decisions, then everything else will come.”
You won’t ever get Johnson to say he’s surprised or overwhelmed with his early success.
“Ain’t no problem for me. It’s all kind of what I expected,” he said. “You put in the time and preparation, and hard work during the summer. I set my goals high. … throw for 3,000 yards, win a state championship and go undefeated, and just check off each one. It’s all falling into play as we speak, Just got one more check off with state championship.”
And he’s not worried that his final box could remain unchecked.
“I’m impressed with them,” he said of Manatee. “But at the same time we’re going to whoop ’em.”