Aug. 14, 2015

By Jeff White (

CHARLOTTESVILLE — Matt Johns played quarterback for the University of Virginia football team in nine games last season, three of which he started. His assessment of his performance?

“I thought I was productive, but not productive enough,” Johns said Tuesday at John Paul Jones Arena, where the Cavaliers held their annual media day.

In his start against Duke, for example, Johns passed for 325 yards — by far his career high. But he completed only 22 of 45 attempts in the Wahoos’ 20-13 loss at Wallace Wade Stadium.

“There were a lot of plays left out on the field,” Jones said. “I really dug into that film and tried to correct those mistakes over the summer, so when we have these big plays, we can hit ’em and convert and get up on teams.”

For the season, he completed 54.9 percent of his passes — 89 of 162 — well below the benchmark most quarterbacks would aim for in today’s game. Johns, a 6-5, 210-pound redshirt junior, is no exception.

“Sixty-five [percent] would be a great goal to have,” Johns said. “I guess statistically that is what I should shoot for, but I don’t enter a game thinking, ‘I gotta hit 65 percent of my throws,’ because that takes away your mindset of just focusing on the task at hand.”

In 2014, Johns started only the games that classmate Greyson Lambert missed with an ankle injury. In the others, Johns backed up Lambert. But Johns came out of spring practice as the starter, and Lambert transferred to Georgia after graduating from UVa this summer.

That left Johns as the Cavaliers’ undisputed No. 1 quarterback, and he’s confident he’ll be better in all regards this fall.

“My timing’s better, the ball’s coming out quicker, my footwork’s a lot sharper, I would say, and I’m seeing things a lot slower, which is good,” said Johns, who was 2-1 as a starter last fall.

“When you first get in, the game’s very fast. So in terms of progressing, the game’s a lot slower, and I’m seeing structures of defense and where safeties are rotating and things like that.”

Johns impressed offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild with his work ethic and commitment even before the ‘Hoos opened training camp last week.

“He’s had a great summer,” Fairchild said. “He’s done just a fabulous job [as a leader].”

Fairchild said several factors contributed to Johns’ less-than-sterling completion percentage last season.

“We evaluate not only the quarterbacks, but we evaluate the entire scheme of things,” Fairchild said. “Last year at times we were doing things to help a very inexperienced and not real deep offensive line at times. So that reflected in some of the passing game — not being able to get the ball down the field as much as we like, not being able to get a lot of guys out in routes like we like. We’ve really come on in the spring in the offensive line. We’re playing well and we’ve got good depth there, and that’s helping things.

“You’d love [for the quarterback to complete] 65, 70 percent, but it depends on the game, too, if you’re calling shorter stuff because of the coverage. Some things are just going to have a higher completion percentage than some of the [deep throws] down the field. But obviously we want to complete the ball.”

Simply completing the pass, however, should not be the quarterback’s only goal. A precisely thrown ball can lead to significant yards after the catch.

“Ball placement nowadays is such a key part of the passing game,” Fairchild said. “It’s a premium quality you look for in the quarterback spot. Sometimes on a completion we’re still saying, ‘That’s not what we want. We want the ball placed here.’ Nobody’s perfect, but it’s something we’re stressing, and [Johns has] done a nice job.”

Not having to battle for the starting job this summer, Johns acknowledged, has helped him.

“Sometimes when you have someone over your shoulder or you’re competing with a guy, you get a little more tense, because you’re looking to your right, you’re looking to your left,” he said. “But now that I know that I’m the starter, I can play a little more free, and I think it’s been very helpful for this entire camp.”

Johns, who’s from the Philadelphia area, lives with three teammates: center Jackson Matteo and wide receivers Canaan Severin and Ryan Santoro. Severin established himself as one of the ACC’s premier wideouts in 2014, and he expects Johns’ completion percentage to rise this season.

“I definitely feel like he’s going to be more accurate,” said Severin, one of the Cavaliers’ four captains. “That’s why we were here all summer working out, getting our timing down and going against our defense and trying to get a good look against them … I think it’s going to come full circle.”

Since enrolling at UVa in 2012, Johns has been popular among his teammates, and that hasn’t changed.

Still, Severin said, “I kind of feel like he leads the team more freely. He’s the same guy, mentally and vocally. He was always an encouraging guy. But I kind of feel now it’s his team almost, it’s his offense.

“He may not be a captain, but I tell him all the time he’s a leader of this team. [The coaches] may not put me on the field every play, I don’t know, but I always tell him the ball’s going to be in his hands every play. So Matt has to be a leader. He has to be a better leader than me, in my eyes. So I think he’s going to do a great job.”

Johns passed for 1,109 yards and eight touchdowns last season, with five interceptions. With his incompletions, Johns said, “I wouldn’t say there was a common thread. It’s just a matter of being accurate and consistent, play in and play out. That’s really what Coach Fairchild harps on, and that’s what we’re going to continue to harp on.”

Johns also was the holder on field goals and extra points in 2014, but he’s not likely to be used in that role again this season, special teams coach Larry Lewis said. Reserve quarterback Andrew Mackay is expected to take over as holder.

WORK IN PROGRESS: The leading candidates for the No. 2 quarterback’s job are junior Connor Brewer, who transferred to Virginia from Arizona last month, and redshirt freshman Corwin Cutler. A decision from the coaching staff does not appear imminent.

“We’re evaluating it,” Fairchild said. “Once you get past Matt Johns, you’re talking about guys that not only haven’t really played in a game here at UVa, but they really haven’t played in a UVa offense. [Brewer and Cutler are still learning] things like cadence and formations and how we change plays at the line, and all that.”

Moreover, Fairchild said, it’s “one thing to learn it, and it’s another thing to rep it enough — which they have not done — [and] rep it enough to where they’re comfortable doing what we’re asking them to do. They’ll be no snap judgment on any of those guys, because we know it’s going to be a little up and down with our second group. It used to be because of the offensive line, now it’ll be because of the quarterback. But we’ll play through it for a few days and just kind of see where we’re at.”

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