Matt Johns was a redshirt freshman sent in for the first time to work with the first team on a two-minute drill.
It was just practice, but on the first snap, the ball went right through his hands.
“The whole line is looking at me like, ‘Are you freaking kidding me?’,” Johns recalled this week. “I looked at them and said, “We’re going to be good,’ and we drove down the field and I threw a touchdown pass to Jake McGee.”
Point made, and not the only time his assurance proved true. A season later, when Virginia trailed UCLA 21-3 in the second quarter, Johns led a touchdown drive that made it 21-10 by halftime in a 28-20 loss.
The Cavaliers need that Johns to show up Saturday when Virginia plays at the No. 13 Bruins.
Johns was anointed as Virginia’s quarterback for this year even before incumbent Greyson Lambert announced that he would transfer to Georgia, and Johns spent the summer leaving no doubt as to who is in charge of the Cavaliers. The chance to show that excitement comes Saturday in the Rose Bowl.
“It’s one of the reasons I play with a chip on my shoulder the way that I do,” said Johns, a stout 6-foot-5 and 210-pounder. “I wasn’t the most highly recruited quarterback in the country, obviously, and … from the day I started playing football, and I would say it just helps me put everything aside and not listen to that noise.”
The noise grew increasingly silent this spring and summer, when Johns, having started three games and played in several others, became the quarterback the Cavaliers would look to to lead them to success this fall.
“He’s just a gamer,” linebacker Micah Kiser said. “If you watched Matt practice, you wouldn’t be like, ‘This guy might be the greatest,’ but when it’s game-time, he’s a whole ‘nother dude. That’s why we call him ‘Matty Ice.’ I actually told him the other day, ‘Matt, you can be the savior,’”
Not blessed with a biggest of arms, Johns will rely on his supporting cast this season. And that noise now has him as the face of Virginia, which has no other quarterbacks with experience, buy a wide receiver who thinks his quarterback is more than ready.
“Matt is a guy that … the guys just love to play for, love to be in the huddle with,” Severin said. “When he’s in the huddle, there’s something special about it.
“He’s just always encouraging whether good play, bad play. He’s a guy you want calling the shots.”