By Derrick Mahone
Dennis Johnson is only a sophomore, but his North Clayton teammates can hardly tell by his poise and demeanor on and off the field.
The 5-foot-11, 170-pound quarterback has drawn praise and respect from the majority of the team's upperclassmen for helping lead the Eagles back to the Class AAAA playoffs. Johnson was expected to play a minor role on the team this season, but was thrust in the spotlight after last season's starter transferred.
"He is a pretty bright kid," North Clayton offensive coordinator Demarco Mitchell said. "He makes sophomore mistakes, but his leadership has carried us through. He is very poised out on the field."
Johnson will lead the Eagles (8-2) into Friday's 7:30 p.m. first round playoff game against Bainbridge at Southern Crescent Stadium. On the season, he has passed for 611 yards on 32 of 51 passes with six touchdown in addition to rushing for 87 yards. With the growth of Johnson, North Clayton was able to finish runner-up in the Region 4-AAAA race.
"I'm at my highest peak right now," Johnson said. "I'm still very humbled and not trying to get too excited about everything."
Johnson played some on the varisty last season, but most of his time came on the JV squad. After returning starter Milton Artiss transferred to Westlake before spring practice, he inherited the starting job. Eagles head coach Rodney Hackney said that Johnson's inability to grasp the full offense last season was a reason he had limited varsity snaps.
By his own admission, Johnson said he had to make some changes in his makeup before he could lead a squad that was coming off a region champion, but lost 21 seniors to graduation.
He had to start taking practice a little more serious.
"My attitude had to change, because I had to work extra hard," Johnson said. "I had a lot of guys, especially older ones, looking up to me. I don't think it is any pressure, because every kid dreams of being in this position."
Standout running back Clarence Jackson said following a sophomore wasn't easy at first, but Johnson has proven himself on the field. Jackson, who has committed to Ole Miss, has been a big reason for Johnson and the team's success. The 6-1, 215-pounder has rushed for 1,535 yards on 198 carries and 22 touchdowns.
"We don't look at him as being a sophomore," Jackson said. "We look at him as being a senior. We had to buy into the program for us to be successful. He has done a good job."
Before the loss of Artiss, the coaching staff had hoped to bring Johnson along slowly. Since Artiss' departure happened in the spring, Johnson was able to get most of the reps, in addition to going through summer workouts.
"We knew he could handle it mentally, we were just concerned about the physical part," Mitchell said. "The good part about it, Dennis was no farther behind than any other player we would have had to put in there. He had the same learning curve as the rest."