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Original Issue

Leap of Faith

Josh Johnson put up mind-boggling numbers against small-time opponents. How much does that mean to the NFL?

THE MOST intriguing quarterback prospect in this year's draft might be San Diego's Josh Johnson. In four seasons with the Toreros, the 6'3", 213-pound native of Oakland threw for 9,699 yards and 113 touchdowns, with only 15 interceptions. As a senior he was off the charts: 43 TDs and—no typo—one pick in 301 attempts. "You couldn't do that in seven-on-seven drills with no pass rush," says 49ers assistant coach Ted Tollner.

Yet Johnson remains an enigma because he played at the nonscholarship level of Division I-AA, against the likes of Butler, Davidson and Valparaiso. "You're not going to find any corners that run 5-flat up here," says one pro scout. "The windows are a lot smaller and close a lot faster."

Johnson did receive pro-style training from longtime NFL QB Jim Harbaugh, his coach for three years at USD. Harbaugh lauds Johnson's leadership and his ability to process information at broadband speed. "We ran a version of the West Coast offense, and a lot of our plays were 15 or 16 words," says Harbaugh, now at Stanford. "By the time I would get to word seven or eight, he would finish the play call. He's very quick-minded, and he makes good decisions." He also wins. Johnson was 30--4 as a starter and helped the West to a 31--13 victory in January's Shrine Game, running for 91 yards and passing for 78 and a TD to earn MVP honors. The buzz subsided when Johnson struggled at the combine. He ran the fastest 40-yard dash by a QB that day (4.53) but afterward experienced back spasms that limited his ability to bend his knees and step into his throws, causing his deep passes to flutter. He was sharper two weeks later at his pro day, though a couple of his longer heaves still wobbled. "I'm not saying he doesn't have ability," says another scout, "but he's going to need time. He's not instant coffee."

Johnson, a projected mid-rounder, has worked out for the Jets, Bucs, Patriots, Falcons and Chiefs, with more teams to come. "The scouts know," he says. "They look at things on film like how I anticipate, how I read. That defines what a quarterback is. Everybody has to adjust in the NFL, but I know what I can do."





THE GAP For Johnson, the NFL is a huge leap from USD.