George Johnson III’s odyssey from high school quarterback to UMass football receiver

  • UMass wide receiver George Johnson III played quarterback in high school and defensive back at Michigan. He came to UMass because of his relationship with Don Brown and is back on offense playing receiver. STAFF PHOTO/KYLE GRABOWSKI

  • UMass wide receiver George Johnson III played quarterback in high school and defensive back at Michigan. He came to UMass because of his relationship with Don Brown and is back on offense playing receiver. STAFF PHOTO/KYLE GRABOWSKI

Staff Writer
Published: 8/16/2022 7:31:57 PM
Modified: 8/16/2022 7:29:19 PM

AMHERST – George Johnson III perceives pass plays from every perspective.

The UMass redshirt junior wide receiver played quarterback in high school and was a defensive back at Michigan. He knows where defensive backs want to force him and can leverage that for open space.

“The only real difference is at DB you’re backing up and at receiver you're going forward. But I mean, as a DB, if you play good defense, you basically ran the route for the receiver,” Johnson said.

Once the quarterback throws the ball, he recognized what he wanted when the roles were reversed.

“I can’t throw a perfect ball every time, so I wanted my receivers to make plays for me when they could. That translated over,” Johnson said. “The quarterback can’t throw a perfect ball every time so I got to make a play for him. No matter what, if I touch it, I gotta catch it.”

Johnson started his high school football career as a defensive back. An Arizona State-bound receiver burned the then-freshman deep on his very first drive for Martin County High School (Fla.).

“He Mossed me the first drive of the game,” Johnson said, referencing Hall of Fame receiver Randy Moss’ penchant for jumping over corners for spectacular catches.

Martin County’s quarterback broke his thumb on the next drive. There were no other quarterbacks on the roster, so Johnson took over a job he battled for all summer and led the Tigers to a victory. He started the next game and the rest of his freshman year.

Johnson spent most of his sophomore year as a receiver before moving back under center as an upperclassman. He was named his team’s offensive player of the year four times and garnered three all-state selections. National recruiting services anointed him a three-star prospect and one of the nation’s premier athletes. Johnson chose Michigan over offers from Florida State, Georgia, Kentucky and others, leaving the south for frigid Ann Arbor, Mich.

Don Brown, now UMass’ coach, made it happen.

“He has like a fire in him. Why wouldn’t you want to play for a coach like... that who has a fire, who’s gonna bring it out of you every day,” Johnson said of Brown. “He’s 67 years old. He's still thriving. He's still making it. Why wouldn't you want to play for someone like that?”

The Wolverines named him their offensive scout team player of the week once his freshman season, and he didn’t see game action as a sophomore. Johnson switched from receiver to defensive back before the 2021 season.

“His technique, how he plays the game, he doesn’t necessarily do it like the rest,” Michigan receiver Ronnie Bell said last August. “He doesn’t play like the rest of them. It’s either misleading or it’s — he can catch you off-guard because he’s unorthodox.”

Years of quarterback and receiver taught him a different way. Johnson appeared in four games last season while Brown was coordinating Arizona’s defense. After Brown returned to Amherst in December and brought along former Michigan coach Steve Casula as offensive coordinator, Johnson knew where he had to go.

“I’ve got family here. It was the right choice. I had been playing in the offense. The head coach had been recruiting me since high school. He wasn’t a stranger,” Johnson said. “Knowing the offense and getting my chance back at receiver, all the things steered me here.”

His compass pointed true. Johnson called Amherst home.

“It’s amazing. I love it here,” he said. “It’s the first time I go home for break and I’m excited to get back to Amherst. My past two years I dreaded going back to college. When I get the chance to come back here I’m smiling and ready to get on the plane.”

He comfortably assimilated into the UMass program and Casula’s offense. Johnson works dangerously in space, so the team puts the ball in his hands however they can — whether that’s out in a pattern, through short screens or handing him the ball on sweeps and options.

“All these guys are just obsessed. We're obsessed with the route detail, and they do a good job of getting open,” UMass receivers coach Ryan Patridge said.

Johnson lives with quarterback Gino Campiotti and offensive lineman Cole Garcia.

“Gino’s my man. We ride until the wheels fall off,” Johnson said. “Being around him all the time, that’s love through all measures.”

Occasionally Johnson will even visit teammates in the dorms for a good laugh and to deepen the Minutemen’s brotherhood and community.

“That should tell you what type of school this is, if I’m going to the dorm to hang out,” Johnson said. “That should tell you how fun it is here.”

Johnson also recognizes the opportunity playing for this UMass team represents. The Minutemen have never played in a bowl game since becoming an FBS program in 2012.

“I have the chance to be part of something amazing. When we win that first bowl game this year – I'm calling it now – and they put our plaque on the wall, 50 years later, I'm gonna come back and be like, ‘I was the first team that brought history to this school,’” Johnson said.  “We can do something that will really matter for years and years down the line.”

Saying you’ll win a bowl game is one thing. Turning around a program that’s won two games in the past three years won’t be easy. Johnson didn’t come to Amherst for easy.

“Something that’s hard is worth working for. If it’s easy, it ain’t worth it,” he said. “Day by day, brick by brick.”

Kyle Grabowski can be reached at kgrabowski@gazettenet.com. Follow him on Twitter @kylegrbwsk.

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