When Bronco Mendenhall announced Monday that senior Matt Johns would start at quarterback on Saturday at Georgia Tech, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who was disappointed. Anyone.
No, that’s not hyperbole. The reaction certainly isn’t a statement on Kurt Benkert, the transfer from East Carolina turned starter either. It’s merely a reflection on the respect Matt Johns has earned from inside the locker room, throughout the University community, and all the way out through the fan base. I’ll let you in on a not-so-secret secret – the media loves him too.
The first two groups make sense. He’s a leader on the team, works hard, and supports and helps others. Around Grounds, that reputation carries through. With the media, he’s always available when requested, handles questions good or bad with clear thoughts, and provides a good quote too.
But what about the fans? Why is Matt Johns beloved? I think the answer is fairly simple. He’s one of you. He’s everyman.
In literature, the everyman character often serves as the humble sidekick to the bigger star. Sometimes, the everyman character faces difficult circumstances. Frequently the everyman acts as the audience in the story. Regardless of the exact details, however, it’s a character that the audience identifies a common trait with and ultimately roots for in the end.
I believe Virginia fans find all of those things in Matt Johns. He’s humble and shared the spotlight when starting.
Fans easily identify with him. He’s not the biggest or fastest. He doesn’t have the biggest arm. But boy, he’s fearless and clearly enjoying the moment. Johns is out there bobbing his head to the stadium music, running around with a big smile after good plays, and pumping his fists with excitement. He’s also not perfect, as 17 interceptions in 2015 makes clear, but that’s an everyman characteristic too.
When looking at his career, Johns went from afterthought to holder to co-starter to starter and back again. He didn’t stop working when he didn’t get a shot at first, didn’t bristle at being in a rotation, didn’t blink with the expectations for a starter, and never complained when he got demoted with the new coaching staff in town.
In mid-October, the coaches decided to pull Benkert against North Carolina and went with senior Connor Brewer at No. 2. Brewer held that spot since the Connecticut game at least – he warmed up on the sidelines while Benkert got evaluated for a shoulder injury in that one, but didn’t get in the game – while Johns’ quarterback duties sat only with the scout team.
As it turned out, Johns threw a trick-play touchdown pass in that game with the Tar Heels so the media summoned him for his thoughts. He didn’t turn down the request. He didn’t whine when the questions inevitably turned to the No. 3 variety. No sulking. No undermining the coaches. In fact, he talked about the positives, how he could help the other quarterbacks, and how he kept focus on how to help other teammates too.
Just like when David Watford was the starter. Just like when Grayson Lambert was the starter. Just like the Michael Rocco-Phillip Sims year that he redshirted.
Notice the common thread among all those players? Every one of them transferred elsewhere. Good reasons or not, that’s not something they have in common with Matt Johns. He stayed. He toughed it out. He stayed optimistic. He focused on the good despite the poor records. He smiled anyway and talked about good memories in Scott Stadium, fans on the hill, and the great moments with teammates.
In other words, he did exactly what so many fans have done. Johns stuck it out. Johns grinned and bore it. Johns lived through the hopes and disappointments. The ups and downs. Johns embraced it all while fans lived it out vicariously with him. That’s why Hoos are rooting for him and a sunset ride at the end of his career. That’s why Hoos love him.