December 24, 2010 6:26:00 AM
STARKVILLE -- Three seasons ago, Jaquez Johnson was shocked when he learned he would be Starkville High School''s starting quarterback.
Then a sophomore, Johnson took nearly all of the snaps at quarterback in a season-opening blowout loss at Louisville.
Seniors Colton Phelps and Justin Minor transferred shortly thereafter, leaving Johnson as the team''s only option under center.
"I found out in the newspaper the next morning," Johnson said. "It was kind of surprising because at 15 years old it''s kind of hard to play quarterback in the toughest division in the state."
Johnson thought he''d play multiple positions in his first year as a varsity player, but he replaced Brad Henderson and was groomed as the quarterback of the future.
He has been the man ever since.
But up until this season, he hadn''t maximized his dual-threat capabilities.
Johnson led the Yellow Jackets to the playoffs last season, flashing spread-option talents on the ground and through the air. But turnovers held back his play, and a litany of injuries changed the dynamic of a team looking to rebound from a dismal ''08 campaign.
All Johnson could think of in the offseason was having one last chance to help transform the football program. He had just played a pivotal role as starting guard on the school''s boys basketball team. He was an outfielder for the baseball team, which made its third straight trip to the postseason.
That''s what senior seasons are for, right?
Enter coach Jamie Mitchell, the football program architect who''d built winners at Olive Branch and Itawamba AHS.
Mitchell took over in the spring, immediately overhauling practice routines, training regimens, and the attitude in the football program.
He made one thing clear from the start: Johnson must be Starkville''s best player.
That mandate didn''t pertain only to quarterback.
Johnson accepted the challenge, throwing 16 touchdowns, rushing for 15, playing safety for nearly half of the defensive snaps, and being an up back on the punt team.
Johnson''s ability to do all of those things at a high level earned him The Dispatch Large Schools All-Area Football Team''s Offensive Player of the Year.
"I don''t know how much more he could have done for us," Mitchell said. "It''s not just what he does in the stat department; his leadership was excellent. He was the heart and soul of our football team."
Mitchell didn''t know he''d have Johnson when he took the job. Mitchell said he had seen Johnson on film of common opponents between Starkville and Itawamba. He was under the impression Johnson was a senior until then Louisville High coach Brad Peterson gave him some good news.
"That sweetened the pot," Mitchell said.
With a first-year starter at running back and a first-year player at wideout, though, Starkville''s offense was less than steady to start the season, falling 14-7 to Noxubee County and Meridian.
But the Yellow Jackets'' offense transformed from a ball-control, methodical unit into an explosive group. SHS finished the season with six games of 32 points or more.
The big secret?
There isn''t one, Johnson said.
"The offense changed a little bit with the speed sweep, but the running plays for me didn''t change," Johnson said. "The terminology changed, but that wasn''t hard to get down. The biggest thing was we were always competitive, but we didn''t want it bad enough. (Mitchell) brought that back to us."
The first half of the season proved encouraging, as Starkville defeated defending Class 5A champion West Point (21-20) and Tupelo (47-14). At 5-2, the Yellow Jackets were tied atop Class 6A, Region 1 and in the state rankings.
The team struggled after that and saw its season end in cruel fashion. The Yellow Jackets missed out on the playoffs after a 28-27 homecoming loss to Southaven -- where they''d scored in the final seconds but opted for the win with an unsuccessful fake field goal -- and a 40-36 defeat at Olive Branch after a hail mary at the end of regulation.
By the time Starkville reached the season finale against Columbus, Johnson was battered and the team was drained.
The result was yet another last-gasp loss, 34-32.
"It was hard to get up for that game," Johnson said. "You could just see how much the season had taken out of us. "
Johnson played the final four games with a torn labrum he suffered against Southaven. He''ll have surgery to repair his shoulder at Oktibbeha County Hospital.
"I just think it shows his toughness," Mitchell said. "There were several weeks where he couldn''t do anything in practice. But he fought through it and made all the throws."
Starkville missed out on the playoffs with a 5-6 record, though it lost five games by a touchdown or less.
Missing the postseason was hard to stomach, Johnson said.
"It hurt knowing how much better we were," Johnson said. "I think we were better than Southaven and Olive Branch, and seeing how we beat Tupelo, it was disappointing. It kind of does take something away from our season."
There is a bright spot, however, as Football Bowl Subdivision programs are courting Johnson. The University of Alabama at Birmingham, Louisiana-Lafayette, and Memphis, the latter of which he''ll visit Jan. 14, are interested. Johnson also has scheduled a visit to Central Arkansas on Jan. 28.
He said college programs aren''t backing away because of his shoulder surgery.
Johnson said he grew the most in his ability to live without the big play. Checking down to a tight end or to a running back proved efficient and rewarding.
Mitchell marveled at Johnson''s decision-making, which he believes will be one of his biggest assets at the next level. He compared his quarterback to former Tupelo quarterback Jarius Jackson, who had a similar skill-set and build.
Jackson eventually played at Notre Dame and in the NFL.
"It was really immeasurable this year," Mitchell said. "We were standing on the sideline at times and we would just be wowed by his decision-making. You know where it''s supposed to go as a coach, but as a high school player you just don''t expect them to make those kinds of reads.
"It''s a big plus to have our other quarterbacks watch a guy like that. He''s set the bar."
1. Columbus High basketball teams continue winning ways HIGH SCHOOL SPORTS
2. Johnson, Williams could be key pieces for No. 4 MSU women COLLEGE SPORTS
4. Tennessee routs Mississippi State COLLEGE SPORTS
5. Ole Miss holds on to beat Missouri COLLEGE SPORTS