Patience is the perfect word to describe Cole Johnson’s career at James Madison. There’s a consistent sentence in his bio for every season since his 2016 true freshman year: “Served as No. 2 quarterback.”
That patience has paid off as Johnson is set to start JMU’s spring season opener Saturday against Morehead State.
The last time Johnson started a game was in 2016 in his first year on campus. Johnson filled in for an injured Bryan Schor for one game late in the regular season, going 17-of-28 for 317 yards, two touchdowns, and two interceptions. He played in four total games that season.
In 2017, Johnson served as Schor’s backup again. As a third-year junior in 2018, Johnson battled Pitt transfer Ben DiNucci for the starting job. DiNucci won the battle, and Johnson played in only four games to retain a year of eligibility thanks to the four-game redshirt rule.
With DiNucci’s turnover struggles in 2018, the job was up for grabs entering the 2019 season. DiNucci won the job again and went on to have an All-American season as the Dukes reached the national championship game, losing 28-20 to North Dakota State.
Johnson is now a fifth-year senior and in his third straight season in an open QB competition, this time against redshirt junior Gage Moloney. All indications are Johnson will be the Week 1 starter, and JMU head coach Curt Cignetti recently called him the leader in the clubhouse.
“I saw Cole making high-level decisions for probably the last 15 practices, taking the check down, knowing the down and distance, and pulling the ball in the run game when he needed to,” Cignetti said in a Zoom press conference. “He was cutting his losses and getting us back to second-and-10 when he needed to. He was putting the ball where it had to be and throwing a catchable ball. [Johnson] really makes the right protection calls all the time, makes the right checks in the run game, knows the offense well, and is really a smart guy that makes very quick decisions.”
Johnson is 6-foot-5 and 213 pounds with a strong right arm. While he won’t possess the elusiveness of Schor or DiNucci, Johnson does have the ability to run the ball and has good speed in the open field. He scored on a 33-yard TD run in 2019.
A two-star recruit out of Virginia Beach, Virginia, Johnson held offers from JMU, Temple, Davidson, Monmouth, Norfolk State, and Towson.
He was named JMU’s Rookie of the Year in 2016 and was an honorable mention for the STATS FCS National Rookie of the Week when he started and defeated Elon.
With this academic year being a free year of eligibility, Johnson can return in the fall of 2021 for his sixth season. In his first four years at JMU, he has rushed for 113 yards and two TDs while going 86-of-134 passing for 1,099 yards, six TDs, and six interceptions.
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Sam’s coverage of the FCS began in 2012 as the sports editor and eventual editor-in-chief of NDSU’s The Spectrum. After graduating in 2015, he spent three years in the newspaper and magazine industry while starting his work for HERO Sports in the fall of 2016 as a freelancer. In May 2018, he joined the website full time as the Senior FCS Analyst.