- Jake Elman Special to the Palm Beach Post
Imagining De’Andre Johnson, who was named Florida Mr. Football after his senior season in 2014, taking snaps in Boca Raton would have been impossible at this time two years ago. With Jameis Winston headed to the NFL, Johnson was projected as the former Heisman Trophy winner’s replacement with the Florida State Seminoles; it was hard to go wrong with a deadly dual-threat quarterback, one of the greatest in the state’s history, who could help Jimbo Fisher’s team win their second National Championship this decade.
All of that hype and fanfare went out the door when Johnson was dismissed from the team after punching a woman at a Tallahassee bar.
Before signing a plea deal in December 2015, Johnson was facing a misdemeanor battery charge, though he instead was put on probation for six months and spent 10 days working with the sheriff’s department. Now, Johnson arrives in Boca Raton a marked man, a refugee after spending the 2016 season at East Mississippi Community College.
Ask Johnson, however, and he’ll tell you that the trip he took through darkness had a rewarding payoff - and features plenty of lessons learned along the way.
“Going from FSU to school in Eastern Mississippi out in the middle of nowhere and now being in paradise, it’s a blessing,” Johnson said. “It just goes to show that God has a plan for everybody and you may not see it early, but soon, God will show it to me.”
Johnson’s story is well known, especially after he appeared on the second season of the Netflix documentary series Last Chance U. Throwing for 2,464 yards and a 26-6 TD-INT ratio while also leading the team in rushing yards, Johnson destroyed JUCO defenses and again generated interest from Division I schools.
After Jason Driskel was inconsistent and the Daniel Parr experiment failed, FAU came into the 2016 offseason looking for another quarterback and the MACJC (Mississippi Association of Community & Junior Colleges) North MVP fit the bill. Though it was previous FAU coach Charlie Partridge who began the recruitment of Johnson, the school’s December hire of Lane Kiffin as coach is what sealed the deal for the rising junior quarterback.
FAU adding Kendal Briles, the mastermind behind arguably the nation’s best offense at Baylor, was a bonus for the former First Coast quarterback.
“Coming to the [Oxley Center], I see coach Kiffin, I see coach Briles, and those are two of the greatest minds in college football,” Johnson said. “Coach Kiffin, he doesn’t really talk too much but when he talks, you listen. I was in awe at first like, ‘oh, this is coach Kiffin of the Oakland Raiders, USC, and Tennessee’ and I was ready to go.”
Johnson also spoke highly of Lane’s father Monte, a quality control coach who has been serving as a mentor for players and coaches alike. While Monte mainly works with the defensive backs, Johnson hinted that the creator of the Tampa 2 has been an advisor for him, affectionately referring to the senior Kiffin as “The Godfather.”
An FAU official did confirm with The Palm Beach Post that Johnson is not on any type of probation or mandated activities with the school. During a meeting with athletic director Pat Chun, Johnson instead made it clear that he wanted to do outreach in the local community.
Able to participate in spring practice because he is enrolled as an FAU student, Johnson is one of five JUCO recruits that the Owls have landed in their 2017 recruiting class; defensive end Tim Bonner, who signed his letter of intent in February, played with Johnson at East Mississippi. On social media, Johnson has used the hashtag #JUCOProduct to congratulate other players who have gone from junior colleges to Division I.
Some might look at junior colleges as almost the minor leagues of college football, the places where players who weren’t wanted anywhere else go, but Johnson takes pride in having succeeded at East Mississippi.
“When I was at high school and Florida State, I never really looked at JUCO guys or understood what that was like,” Johnson said. “Just to be out there for two years and the challenges that you face out there, it takes a strong individual to make it at JUCO.”
Johnson then added that the biggest misconception that he believes people have about the JUCO ranks is people forget that “it’s still just football.”
In spring practice, Kiffin has said no starting spots are guaranteed, especially at the quarterback position. While Johnson does appear to be the favorite to start against Navy on Sept. 3, what he can do for those around him is more of a priority than worrying about a game five months away.
“This year is about vindicating and restoring myself, but really, I’m just focused on the team,” Johnson said. “I’m focused on winning — it’s not about me, it’s about FAU football. It’s the Coach Kiffin era, not my era.”