After Bryan Schor exited as James Madison’s starting quarterback three years ago, he sat Cole Johnson down and passed along some advice.
Johnson, at the time, had two years under his belt with the Dukes. He was Schor’s backup on the quarterback depth chart. Schor had led JMU to the 2016 FCS national title and a national runner-up finish at the end of the 2017 season.
“He was like, ‘When you go out there and you try to compete for a position, you don’t worry about what anybody else is doing. Just focus on improving yourself,’” Johnson said this week.
That’s what Johnson has zeroed in on — self improvement, without worrying about anything else.
The gratification, as the Dukes’ starting quarterback, has been far from immediate. He competed with Pittsburgh transfer Ben DiNucci for the top spot ahead of the 2018 and 2019 seasons, but lost out, remaining No. 2.
But Johnson stuck with JMU, and stuck with his personal path of improvement. And now, as a fifth-year senior, he’s finally poised to see it pay off as JMU’s starting quarterback.
Coach Curt Cignetti this past weekend pegged Johnson as the leader in this offseason’s quarterback competition — between Johnson and junior Gage Moloney — ahead of the start of the Dukes’ spring-semester season.
So it seems Johnson will be the one leading JMU’s offense when the program opens at home against Morehead State on Feb. 20. Johnson acknowledged Tuesday that he’s allowed himself to think a bit about what it’ll feel like to start out of the gate for the Dukes, after how long he’s waited to earn that distinction.
It’s great, he said, because of the hard work he’s put in over the years to get here.
“And to see that finally kind of pay off has been great,” Johnson said. “And I’m really excited.”
Johnson, in his time at JMU, has made 22 appearances. The 6-5, 213-pound Virginia Beach native has one career start to this point, as a freshman in 2016 for an injured Schor. He went 12 of 13 for 274 yards passing and two touchdowns in that game, a 63-14 JMU victory.
Fast forward four years, and Johnson has been in competition with Moloney since the Dukes’ “fall ball” practice period, a version of spring ball after the fall season was postponed.
Cignetti said Saturday that Johnson had separated himself slightly from the last half of fall ball through now, with his decision making.
“I’ve been very impressed with him mentally — thinking like a quarterback. Pushing the right buttons,” Cignetti said. “And he’s completing 70% or better of his passes right now.”
Where Johnson has upped his game heading into this season, he said, is in his knowledge of the offense. The spring season will be Cignetti’s second at JMU, and offensive coordinator/quarterback coach Shane Montgomery’s second as well.
Johnson described the two as really smart offensive coaches.
“It’s different with every coach, and you kind of get accustomed to their style. But just playing smart, eliminating turnovers,” Johnson said, describing his mental approach. “Just knowing, obviously, down and distance. And keeping us out of bad situations.”
One of the mainstays of JMU’s offense has been quarterback mobility. DiNucci ran for 1,002 yards and 16 touchdowns in his two years with the Dukes. Schor ran for 1,163 yards and 21 touchdowns over his four years.
Johnson, at Cox High School, operated in a version of the triple-option offensive and described his as “deceptive speed.” He believes it’s a part of his game JMU can use effectively this year, supplementing his arm. He ran for a 33-yard score in the 2019 season.
As JMU’s opener approaches, Cignetti said he has much trust in Johnson as a person, and total confidence that he can get the job done.
Johnson acknowledged that it’s been hard at times to wait in the wings. But it seems he took Schor’s words to heart. He’s waited his turn, gotten better and now it’s his time.
“At the end of the day,” Johnson said, “if you’re the best version of yourself then I think you’ll play great and you’ll lead a team well.”