The rise of Rio

Published 10:28 pm Saturday, September 17, 2011

East Carolina quarterback Rio Johnson prepares to throw a pass during a practice earlier this year. Johnson’s growth in maturity has allowed him to take the No. 2 spot on the depth chart at the quarterback position. (WDN Photo/Brian Haines)

GREENVILLE — It’s been a bumpy road for Rio Johnson, as the big-armed backup quarterback has scrambled away from the pressure of negative forces last season and rolled into this year with a newfound focus.
It’s that improved maturity that has allowed the redshirt sophomore to unseat junior Brad Wornick at the No. 2 spot on the depth chart behind second-year starter Dominique Davis.
Riley acknowledges that the 6-2, 193-pound Atlanta native has all the tools to be a successful college quarterback. The Pirates’ second-year offensive coordinator even said Johnson has the best arm out of anyone wearing a Pirates uniform, including Davis, who threw for a school-record 3,967 yards in 2010.
Perhaps at no other position in sports are the “intangibles’ more important than at quarterback, and despite his physical gifts, last season Johnson lacked the right leadership qualities to be the guy who is one play away from guiding the Pirates.
This year, he’s worked hard to change that perception.
“He’s just grown up a lot, that’s the biggest thing,” Riley said. “When we got here there were a few times we almost ran him off because he wasn’t showing the maturity that he needed. I’ve challenged him and to his credit he’s responded. He’s grown up and showed me that he can potentially be a leader on this team.”
Locked in a heated quarterback competition with Wornick a year ago, Riley said Johnson’s lack of leadership was a factor when it came down to making out the depth chart.
“That was a big reason why, in my mind, he was eliminated last year when he was because that wasn’t there,” Riley said. “But, it’s a big reason why he was still in the mix this year. I think he wants to, but he’s still learning how to. It’s not something most people are born with. Some people can lead, but you still have to teach them how.”
Johnson admitted to his flaws and said he has worked hard to give the coaches what they are asking for.
“Last year I put myself in some tough situations where the coaches asked if I’m trustworthy or not, but I think I’ve improved on that a lot and they trust me a lot more than they did in the past,” Johnson said.
Riley said at the end of the day, despite how big a quarterback’s arm is or how great his accuracy might be, without trust it means nothing.
“These guys know, and they will be the first to tell you, that my No. 1 thing is leadership and trust. If you don’t have that the other things don’t matter,” Riley said. “Regardless of all the pretty balls he threw and all the good plays he made, if I you’re not a leader then it’s all a moot point.”
Johnson said heading into his sophomore year that he decided to do all he could to win his coaches’ trust.
“It took a lot of hard work, being accountable and being everywhere on time,” Johnson said.
McNeill has routinely said that there is no entitlement on the East Carolina football team, which obviously extended to Johnson, as he flirted with his purple and gold status last season. The new, mature Johnson said he used those negative situations motivation entering his sophomore season.
“It made me want to work harder,” Johnson said. “It made me focus more on football than the other things that were outside of football.”
On the field, there are little questions about his ability.
“He’s the best pure passer of the group, the other guys are certainly good at it, but he’s the most pure guy,” Riley said.
While Johnson is equipped with nimble feet that have allowed him to escape pressure in scrimmages, Riley said his young QB is much more of a pocket passer.
“He has average athleticism for a quarterback … but he has that foot quickness which is way more important that straight line speed. Learning to move in the pocket is a bit of an art because guys are trying to take your head off and you have to keep your eyes downfield,” Riley said. “His accuracy is great. … He’s one of those guys that could get in there and throw for a bunch of yards, he’s that pocket guy.”
While his maturity is improving, Riley said the young passer also needs to work on his mechanics. Like all big-armed quarterbacks, Johnson can rely too much on his strength and shy away from proper technique and touch.
“The arm and accuracy he has is phenomenal, but what he has to learn is to harness it,” Riley said.  “If you watch a guy like Brett Farve when he gets in trouble he makes all these crazy throws. Rio is similar to that in that needs to understand that he doesn’t need to put 100 percent on his throws all the time.
“People recommend quarterbacks and we go watch a lot when we recruit and I eliminate probably 50 to 60 percent of them – and they all have big arms so people want to recruit them – but they all go out there and try to throw it threw a wall. There’s nobody that can throw like that. You look at the NFL guys, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, neither one of those guys have huge arms, they’re just smooth and that’s what they do.”
Until the day comes that Johnson can unleash that big arm in a game, he must live the life of a backup each day and try to learn as much as he can from Davis.
“We have a real good relationship,” Johnson said. “He’s taught me a lot of stuff, especially about being a leader. I’ve learned a lot from him.”
Only time will tell if his lessons have paid off.