STEPHENS CITY — Following the end of each high school football season, Sherando head coach Bill Hall presents his returning players with a sheet of paper on which they list their goals for the next season and how they plan to put themselves in position to reach those goals.
LeeQuan Johnson Jr. took that opportunity to draw out a specific plan for his senior season at Sherando. He wanted to be an every-down running back for the Warriors. He wanted to rush for 2,000 yards in his final season. He wanted to be a team captain. He wanted to “be the next George Aston,” referring to his former teammate now playing fullback for the University of Pittsburgh.
Johnson wanted to do it all.
“He prepared knowing that he was going to be the workhorse and I told him as long as he could handle it, I was going to be more than willing to oblige him,” Hall said recently.
Adhering to a strict workout and nutrition plan put together by his father, former Purdue running back/linebacker LeeQuan Johnson Sr., and his uncle Darcy Johnson, a former NFL tight end, Johnson made sure he would be prepared for the role he wanted to fill for Sherando this season.
He lifted weights. He ran constantly. He kept his diet in check. He set himself an early bedtime and made sure he stuck to it.
“I think my social life was terrible,” Johnson said with a laugh.
But it was all worth it for Johnson, who reaped the benefits of all that hard work on the football field in 2014.
Johnson was exactly the workhorse that he wanted to be for the Warriors, as he carried the ball 295 times this past season while amassing 1,524 rushing yards and 23 touchdowns. Johnson also caught 14 passes for 265 yards and two scores.
Johnson’s numbers netted him Offensive Player of the Year honors in the Northwestern District and Conference 21, as well as a spot on the all-Region 4A North second team.
For all of Johnson’s accomplishments on the field this season, he has been named The Northern Virginia Daily’s 2014 Football Offensive Player of the Year.
“Coming into it I knew what was expected, and I wanted it,” Johnson said. “I didn’t complain. I never complained because it was what I wanted.
“I wanted to be able to run more. I wanted to be an every-down back. I wanted to be in the game. I wanted to be able to help. … It was very special and it made me very humble and grateful for the opportunities to be able to play. It was just working hard during the week and your guys counting on you. It’s a good feeling. Some people see that as pressure, but I feel like I responded better to it.”
Sherando featured a balanced offensive attack this season (junior quarterback Patrick Minteer passed for 1,740 yards, 24 touchdowns and only three interceptions in 2014) but Johnson’s veteran presence was critical for the Warriors, particularly early in the season as Sherando had to break in eight new starters on offense.
“I just think it gave us some flexibility where early on this season we could rely on him more,” Hall said. “Then what I think it did is it kind of gave us a two-headed monster where you couldn’t just stack the box versus him because we had Pat [Minteer], [receiver Adam Whitacre] and guys who could catch the ball.”
As Sherando’s offensive line — which ushered in four new starters and had to battle through some early injury problems — gained experience and began to mesh, Johnson’s offensive production really took off, and he didn’t slow down even as his rushing attempts piled higher and higher.
Johnson didn’t miss any time due to injury in 2014 despite racking up nearly 300 rushing attempts, and his career-best rushing performance came in the regular season finale against Millbrook in which he rushed for 249 yards and three touchdowns.
“I would definitely say it’s the big reward from just working hard,” Johnson said of his durability. “My thing was, from my parents and my uncles and stuff when I was working out, was you can’t be denied. They worked with me so much to be able to withstand hits and blows, being durable.”
Johnson hasn’t always been known as the physical runner he proved to be at times this season, however. That role previously belonged to Aston, who teamed up last season with the more fleet-footed Johnson to form what the Warriors’ players often referred to as “Thunder and Lightning” in the backfield.
Johnson knew that if he was going to be the every-down back that he wanted to be in 2014, he’d need to become a more physical presence in the backfield.
“He’s adapted well,” Hall said of Johnson, who bumped up from 177 pounds to 210 between his junior and senior seasons. “I wanted him to be a more physical, downhill runner this year, and I think he has the ability to do both those things. He’s a good zone runner, and we didn’t do as much zone this year as we did last year, but he’s patient and he can put his foot in the ground a puncture a defense in zone schemes.
“He’s not just a zone back and he’s not just a power back. He’s the best of both worlds, which makes him very marketable from a running back’s perspective.”
Johnson was finally reined in during Sherando’s loss to Liberty in the second round of the Region 4A North playoffs — he rushed for 36 yards on 16 carries — but he said his senior season with the Warriors ended with no regrets.
Johnson’s two-year varsity total of 2,683 rushing yards ranks fourth on Sherando’s all-time list, and Johnson has drawn the attention of numerous colleges at various levels of competition. He said he and his parents are taking the process slowly in order to make the choice that presents Johnson with the best opportunity both athletically and educationally.
“I would like to go to a school that offers a business program, that way over the summer I can go train with my uncle in Chicago and then come back and just keep working, get an internship while I work,” Johnson said. “[Darcy Johnson] and [Chicago Bears wide receiver] Brandon Marshall, they run the Fit Speed in Chicago, so I’m looking forward to getting up there and working with that and getting stronger while he teaches me a little bit about the industry. Just get a lot of hands-on work that way. So at the end of my college career, if football and all that stuff doesn’t work out, I have a background and I’m able to go establish myself in a corporation somewhere.”
Hall said he believes Johnson’s best football is still ahead of him, and he expects Johnson to continue to grow physically after adding over 30 pounds over the last year. But even with as much physical growth as Johnson has experienced during his time at Sherando, it’s his mental maturation that stands out to Johnson as his greatest transformation.
“Thanks to this program and thanks to my parents and my teachers, everybody that’s worked with me, I think I’ve just grown up a little bit,” Johnson said.
“I’m grateful I was able to play. If I could bring any guys here I would definitely recommend them to this program. It’s just because of everything that I’ve gotten from it.”
Contact staff writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or firstname.lastname@example.org