Missouri State quarterback Jaden Johnson finally lands with Bobby Petrino
Jaden Johnson wanted to play for Bobby Petrino. Petrino wanted Johnson to play for him.
It seemed a natural fit. Johnson was a highly-touted, dual-threat quarterback from Memphis; Petrino was the football coach at the University of Louisville, where Lamar Jackson won a Heisman Trophy as a dual-threat quarterback.
But in November 2018, before Johnson could sign with the Cardinals, Louisville fired Petrino, and Johnson was left scrambling. He ended up at Southern Mississippi and redshirted last season.
Then Missouri State hired the controversial coach, and Johnson immediately hatched a plan.
Transfer to Missouri State and play for Petrino.
“I knew Coach P wasn’t gonna be out of football very long,” Johnson said. “So I knew once I seen him get the job, I was like, ‘Yes, this is something that I always wanted to do since I was a kid,’ and just play for him.”
Johnson entered the transfer portal in April and soon enough had a scholarship offer from Missouri State. Petrino has named Johnson the starting quarterback for the Bears’ season opener Saturday against OU on Owen Field.
Petrino was considered an offensive guru, both at Arkansas and Louisville. Both schools are in border states to Johnson’s native Tennessee, so Petrino was on Johnson’s radar.
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“I've always watched him growing up and just coaching great quarterbacks and things he's done with great quarterbacks,” Johnson said. “I told myself as a kid … this is something I want to do. I want to be one of those players.”
Petrino was fired at Arkansas in 2012 over an extra-marital affair and was fired at Louisville after a seven-game losing streak that included several blowouts. But Petrino also coached the Razorbacks and Cardinals to great glory.
“He’s a great person, family guy,” Johnson said. “Loves the players. I mean, he's gonna coach hard, he expects everything to be perfect and done a certain way, so that's what I've taken from him and I’ve just learned from him, really, being able to learn how to be a perfectionist and you can't settle for mediocrity.”
At Kirby High School in Memphis, Johnson was a three-star recruit who drew interest from the likes of Georgia before Louisville drew his commitment. Getting Johnson via transfer was a coup for Missouri State, a Football Championship Subdivision program that has limited success in the Missouri Valley Conference.
Petrino said picking Johnson as his starter “was a pretty easy decision. It was kind of where he separated early and has taken almost all the reps with the ones. He's very talented. He's got a great mindset for a quarterback. He's got tremendous leadership qualities and I think he'll just keep getting better and better.
“One of the things because I've known him for so long and been around him for so long is I probably expect too much of him. He's just a freshman. It's his first time in the offense, without spring football. So, we're going to have to slow down a little bit and really get him so he understands everything about his progressions and where to go with the ball according to the coverage and let the defense dictate where we distribute the ball."
Missouri State is facing an abbreviated season — two games against Central Arkansas, plus the OU game, in the fall, then the Missouri Valley schedule second semester.
Johnson said he wants to prove that Missouri State is “the best team in the FCS, really,” which won’t be easy, considering the Bears were 1-10 a year ago. “And just being able to show the country that we're a different team with a different mindset. We're out there to play hard, play physical, play tough, just execute and have fun at the same time while doing it all together.”
That could start Saturday in Norman, where Missouri State just putting up a fight is a monumental task. But the Bears have a coach who has been in such an arena, and a quarterback who believes in the coach.
“It's just a blessing to be able to have a coach with the offensive mind and just being able to teach you football every day,” Johnson said. “So, I just feel great about it.”