Johnson’s patience pays off at JMU

Johnson's patience pays off for JMU football
Published: Sep. 27, 2021 at 10:32 PM EDT
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HARRISONBURG, Va. (WHSV) - Cole Johnson is making the most of his final season with the James Madison football team.

“I am having so much fun,” said Johnson. “I feel like as a team, we are just coming together and we are having so much fun out there and playing as a unit.”

Through three games this fall Johnson has thrown for 843 yards and accounted for 12 total touchdowns while not throwing an interception. His passing efficiency rating of 200.13 ranks second overall in the FCS.

“Cole is playing lights out,” said JMU redshirt senior wide receiver Scott Bracey. “I think that comes from his preparation every day. He kind of just took it to another level this (fall) camp and it’s definitely showing on Saturdays now.”

But for Johnson, being a star at James Madison has required patience. Johnson joined the Dukes as a freshman in 2016 and served as the backup QB to Bryan Schor for two seasons in 2016 and 2017. When Schor moved on, after leading the Dukes to the 2016 FCS National Championship and national runner-up finish in 2017, it seemed that Johnson was primed to take over as the starting quarterback.

“I think it was right after the national championship loss in 2017, me and Gage (Moloney) were sitting there in the locker room, it’s just us now,” said Johnson. “We’re gonna be competing for the job.”

But Johnson would again have to wait his turn.

Ben DiNucci transferred to JMU after playing at FBS program Pittsburgh. He beat out Johnson and Moloney for the starting QB job at James Madison in 2018 & 2019. Relegated to the backup role again, Johnson had the option of transferring to another program and seeking an opportunity to start right away but he decided to stay with the Dukes.

“Really looking at it, where else would you want to be than JMU?,” said Johnson. “So I couldn’t think of anywhere else that I would want to be and I feel like I have battled and earned my spot here.”

Cignetti added: “I don’t think I ever worried about Cole leaving. That’s back before the (NCAA transfer) portal. He’s a Virginia guy, his family was here. He was one snap away from being the quarterback.”

With DiNucci off the NFL, Johnson finally earned the starting job at JMU in his fifth season with the Dukes prior to the 2021 FCS Spring Season. But it would not be a smooth ride.

Johnson struggled with turnovers in JMU wins over Robert Morris and Elon. Moloney replaced Johnson in the second half of the game at Elon and led the Dukes to a comeback win on the road. He would be named the starter a few days later but a COVID-19 outbreak within the team led James Madison to pausing its program.

“It was definitely a tough place, that’s why I really leaned on my parents, my family, my teammates, who all really believed in me at that point,” said Johnson. “They knew what I could do and they just really told me put it all out there and don’t hold anything back when you go back.”

When the Dukes returned to action, Johnson was cleared to play and he regained the starting quarterback job. He played well for JMU throughout the rest of the spring season, leading the country in passing efficiency and yards per pass attempt while guiding James Madison to the FCS Semifinals.

Following a loss at Sam Houston in the playoffs, Johnson had a decision to make. He was eligible to return to JMU for a sixth season as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and he chose to come back to James Madison for one final season.

“I’m fortunate I got another opportunity and made the most of it,” said Johnson. “I wouldn’t ever think I would be here six months ago but I am glad I’m here and I’m glad I’m back.”

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