Max Johnson will try to pick up where he left off as LSU's starting QB
Max Johnson will begin this season in the same position he finished last season – as LSU’s starting quarterback.
It didn’t figure to happen the way it did – either last season or this season.
But here he is – again.
Johnson – who helped lead the 2020 Tigers to victories as a starter in the final 2 games and salvage a 5-5 record from a mostly poor follow-up to the perfect national championship season – will try and lead the way for a bounce-back season in 2021.
He and Myles Brennan were poised for what was expected to be a very tight competition during preseason camp, which begins Friday, to determine the starter for the season opener Sept. 4 at UCLA.
But Brennan broke the humerus bone in his non-throwing arm and underwent surgery Tuesday, the same day that head coach Ed Orgeron officially named Johnson the starter.
Orgeron made the announcement during his weekly radio appearance on ESPN Baton Rouge, but he was quick to add that Johnson has “got to have a great camp.”
“The depth chart is etched in sand,” Orgeron said. “He knows he’s got to perform.”
Orgeron called Johnson “a great quarterback, a great championship quarterback.”
But the only other healthy scholarship quarterback that the Tigers have is freshman 4-star recruit Garrett Nussmeier.
One advantage that Johnson would have had in the competition with Brennan would have been his superior running ability. He had 119 rushing yards and 2 rushing touchdowns last season.
But, Orgeron said, the Tigers will have to be more judicious about using Johnson as a runner and exposing him to more hits without an experienced backup.
“We’ve got to keep Max healthy,” Orgeron said. “That’s going to be the key.”
Orgeron compared this situation with the 2018 season when Joe Burrow transferred from Ohio State, won a four-man competition and Lowell Narcisse and Justin McMillan transferred, leaving an untested Brennan as the only scholarship backup.
Burrow stayed healthy and the Tigers finished 10-3 after a victory in the Fiesta Bowl.
A year after LSU won the Fiesta, Johnson enrolled early as a true freshman in time to participate in the Tigers practices for their national championship game against Clemson.
In the summer he engaged in a neck-and-neck competition with fellow freshman TJ Finley to be the primary backup to Brennan after Brennan emerged as the starter as expected.
When Brennan suffered what would turn into a season-ending injury in the third game, Johnson and Finley resumed their battle – this time to replace Brennan.
The competition resumed in preparation for the game against Florida, then extended into a second week when the game against the Gators was postponed.
Orgeron named Finley the starter for the home game the following week against South Carolina with the expectation that Johnson would play a few series. But when the Tigers rolled to a 31-10 halftime lead, Orgeron chose not to mess with a good thing.
Eventually, Johnson entered the game for mop-up duty, rushing twice for 19 yards in a 52-24 victory.
Johnson’s next opportunity came against Auburn when Finley committed 3 turnovers that led to 3 touchdowns that helped Auburn build a 48-3 lead. Johnson passed for 172 yards and LSU’s only touchdown in what wound up as a 48-11 defeat.
Finley remained the starter and helped the Tigers defeat Arkansas. Johnson came off the bench in losses to Texas A&M and Alabama before being given his first start in the rescheduled game at Florida in the second-to-last game of the season.
Johnson, who had been schooled in playing quarterback by his father Brad, an NFL quarterback for 17 seasons and a Super Bowl champion, proved to be more poised as a starter than Finley had been.
He had other athletic influences in the family because his mother, Nikki, was a record-setting volleyball player at South Florida. Her brother (Johnson’s uncle) is former Georgia and Miami football coach Mark Richt, who also played quarterback at Miami.
The Tigers entered The Swamp as more than 3-touchdown underdogs to the No. 6 Gators and came away with a 37-34 victory, one of the biggest upsets of last season.
Johnson completed 21-of-36 passes for 239 yards and 3 touchdowns and also rushed for 52 yards. He was named SEC Offensive Player of the Week.
He made his first start in Tiger Stadium a week later against Ole Miss and was even more productive in a 53-48 victory.
Johnson completed 27-of-51 passes for 435 yards (the most ever by an LSU freshman) and 3 touchdowns. He ran for 45 yards and 2 touchdowns.
For the season, Johnson completed 58.7% of his passes for 1,069 yards with 8 touchdowns and 1 interception.
That didn’t guarantee anything going forward except an opportunity to compete against a healthy Brennan, Finley and Nussmeier beginning this spring.
When the smoke cleared from the spring game, Brennan and Johnson had separated themselves from Finley and Nussmeier. Finley transferred to Auburn, leaving Brennan and Johnson to battle while Nussmeier settled into the No. 3 role.
Then came Brennan’s latest injury.
And now it’s Johnson job again.