Friday Night Hero: A.L. Brown’s T.J. Johnson
By Mike London
KANNAPOLIS ó The seeds for A.L. Brown’s second touchdown in Friday’s 48-6 rout of Central Cabarrus were planted in June.
Senior Tony Johnson Jr., who answers to T.J., caught a TD pass ó a 28-yard, first-quarter aerial thrown by classmate, best friend and new starting quarterback Jamill Lott.
It was a play the buddies had reenacted often during morning catch-and-throw sessions in the offseason.
Johnson woke up most days tingling with excitement about the upcoming season. His first conscious thoughts were always about football. His first call was always to Lott.
“I’d call him and say, ‘Jamill, what are you doing?’ ” Johnson explained. “Then I’d say, “Let’s go!’ Sometimes we’d just go running around the neighborhood. Sometimes we’d work on routes. We’re friends, we know each other well and we built some great timing and chemistry.”
The early touchdown pass was significant because Brown’s ability to throw is one of the few questions about a team with talent at the skill positions, large linemen and championship aspirations.
“Jamill’s arm isn’t as strong as Jonathan Efird’s,” Johnson said. “But the trade is more mobility.”
Lott, who has excelled as a receiver, defensive back and returner, can definitely run. Can he throw? People started finding out Friday.
“It was good to get that first touchdown pass out of the way,” said Lott, who also sprinted 23 yards for Brown’s first TD of the new season. “It was a simple play. I read Cover 3 with eight men in the box. I took a two-step drop, and I saw no one was on T.J.”
Johnson emerged as the top target for Efird during the second half of the 2007 season after Dominique Norris suffered a broken leg.
Johnson, 6-0, 180 pounds, had 15 catches and reeled in five of his six touchdowns in Brown’s last eight games.
He had a touchdown catch in what he described as a “crazy atmosphere” against Concord, and he was a monster in the playoffs against St. Stephens with two scores. On one TD, he was sandwiched by two defenders and shoved while the ball was in the air, but he still was strong enough to snag the ball as a flag dropped for pass interference.
“He pushed me pretty good,” Johnson said. “Caught it anyway.”
To cap a great effort against St. Stephens, Johnson crushed the last potential tackler as Lott blazed 85 yards on a kickoff return that sealed victory.
Johnson, a fine athlete who also plays basketball, is a solid, physical blocker and will strike people on runs as well as special teams.
“Blocking on the runs opens up the passing game,” Johnson said.
Johnson has other talents as well. He’ll see action in the defensive secondary when needed and he’s a fearless punt returner.
He’s even got a decent arm. He surprised Mooresville with a 40-yard pass on a reverse that helped beat the Blue Devils last season.
“Watch out!” Johnson said with a laugh. “That’s still in the playbook.”
Brown coaches believe they have a special senior class, not just athletically but in the classroom.
Coaches were disappointed last season when Wonders were generally ignored by colleges.
This year, recruiters should be more active in Kannapolis. A number of seniors, including Johnson and Lott, have academic credentials that match their physical ability.
Johnson said Elon and North Carolina Central have shown the most interest to date.
“T.J.’s dad is real strict with him,” said tight end Zach Massey, another college prospect. “I remember we went to an AAU basketball tournament and T.J.’s dad wouldn’t let him play because he’d made a ‘C’ on his report card. The guys really got on T.J. and all, but looking back, that’s why he’s a good athlete and a good student.”