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UNC Football: Max Johnson Film Review

The UNC coaching staff’s first priority once the regular season ended was to find a transfer quarterback with starting experience

NCAA Football: Texas A&M at Mississippi Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

Even before Drake Maye’s announcement that he would be leaving Chapel Hill to enter the NFL Draft, the UNC coaching staff, along with everybody else with an eye on UNC football, knew that the Tar Heels would have a new starting quarterback next year. It could have been, and still could be, Connor Harrell, who backed up Maye the last two years and made a couple of impressive plays against Campbell in garbage time this season and will start the Heels’ bowl game against West Virginia. But a coach trying to make hay off his keystone recruiting stretch doesn’t want to start an almost first-time starter at quarterback, so enter Max Johnson, who committed to UNC shortly after entering the transfer portal as a graduate transfer from Texas A&M. Johnson entered the last two years as a backup in College Station, first to Haynes King and then to Conner Weigman, but started several games both seasons due to injuries to the starters. He’s presumably coming to UNC under the assumption that he has the inside track on the starting job, so let’s take a look at what he offers. This is going to be lengthy, so scroll to the bottom for a TL;DR (though I’d obviously like it if you did read).

Anthropometrics: This is a fancy way of saying, essentially, height/weight/speed. Johnson, listed on Texas A&M’s website at 6’6 and 230 pounds and looking every bit of it on the field, is a prototypically-sized, well-built quarterback whose height helps him work the middle of the field and whose frame helps him not go down at first contact in the pocket or as a runner. Johnson didn’t have a ball batted down all season despite a relative lack of creativity as far as throwing angles go, which is a testament to how much his size helps him. Despite his career rushing numbers of 212 rushes for 168 yards indicating otherwise (and we’ll get into why later), he’s a pretty decent mover who can make things happen on QB Power and read-option calls, with a powerful stiff-arm for a quarterback, some agility to make second-level defenders miss, and enough open-field speed to hurt defenses if he gets space, though he’s not going to be making many house calls.

Equable Rogue on YouTube

Arm Talent: Johnson has a reasonably big left arm and I’ve seen him throw both accurate deep balls and intermediate tight-window seeds in the tape I’ve watched, which isn’t nothing. Plus arm strength isn’t a requisite for the position, especially in college football, but it’s a powerful tool to erase or mitigate accuracy issues, salvage broken plays, and stress a defense horizontally — even more of an asset in college football than the pros with the hash marks being wider. Johnson isn’t Drake Maye or Sam Howell in terms of raw arm strength, but when he steps up and drives into a throw (which is, admittedly, not very often; he falls away from his throws a lot when he doesn’t need to and shouldn’t), his arm strength is more plus than minus.

WoodlandsAggie on YT

That said, arm talent constitutes more than just arm strength, and here, Johnson falls short. I don’t want to fall into the trap that I see ensnaring a lot of casual football fans these days of just saying “good arm talent = Mahomes” and moving on when a quarterback fails to measure up to possibly the most talented guy to play the position ever. So, I want to see three things when I judge arm talent: touch passes, arm slot variance, and comfort throwing on the run. I didn’t really see any of that from Johnson in the games I watched. Every throw that looked like it might have some touch to it was closer to balls dying on him due to being unable to get his legs and hips into a throw than being intentional; I only ever saw him throw from that 7/8ths position on his left (I think his throwing slot is a little too high for somebody his size, but that’s probably ancillary); and his results throwing on the run were really mixed. This play was really nice, though I don’t like seeing quarterbacks throw with two feet in the air or running away from the pass if they can help it:

This play was called incomplete on the field and upheld on review despite apparent proof to the contrary.

I also saw passes like this, though. While the pass goes down as a drop, Johnson’s uncomfortable mechanics throwing on the run don’t let him drive the ball to his receiver at the sticks on third down, and his pass tails short and to the sideline as he falls out of the throw instead of staying lateral — the receiver had a first down and even a completion on this pass would have lost it. This isn’t an improv situation where the receiver should be working the sideline and the quarterback is trying to put the ball out of danger, either; this is a sticks route where the receiver is expecting to turn around and get a ball in his chest. And this is on the good end of the bad stuff.

Accuracy: Johnson is a career 60% passer, putting him around average, maybe slightly below, for a Power 5 starter, but that number looks worse when paired with a pedestrian 7.5 yards per attempt. I’ll put it this way: Drake Maye completed 63% of his passes at 8.5 yards per attempt and was no worse than the second-best quarterback in the ACC, while Brennan Armstrong at N.C. State completed 62.5% of his passes at 6.9 yards per attempt and was no better than bottom-5. Johnson’s more inconsistent than inaccurate, which is to say his tape has a lot of bad misses and an almost equal number of pinpoint darts, with a fair number of small inaccuracies like the on-the-run throw above, some of which were caught and others which weren’t. Less Brandon Harris and more Josh Allen, if you catch my drift and don’t use those as total player comparisons. Here’s some of the good:

And the bad:

Big Plays: I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: there is nothing an offensive coordinator wants more, and nothing a defensive coordinator fears more, than an offense that can get the ball downfield in a hurry. Big plays turn potential punts into field goals and field goals into touchdowns, and they’re the closest thing we have to an argument against the “momentum is fake” truthers.

I suspect that Johnson’s propensity for creating them within structure was a top-3 reason UNC’s coaching staff latched onto him so early as a transfer portal prospect. Throwing 20+ yards down the field, Johnson’s accuracy was about average for college football — 13/29 — but he averaged 29 yards per completion and connected on 6 deep touchdowns to just one pick. When he knows where he’s going with the ball and is kept clean enough to air it out, Johnson will make good on offensive coordinators’ playcalling to punish defenses.

I also like the drift towards the field side here to shorten the throw and make sure there’s nobody in his face - I’d like to see more of this than I do in Johnson’s tape.

On the other side of things, there’s a fair bit to like as well, in that he is pretty good at preventing defensive big plays (read: turnovers). Johnson’s career touchdown-interception ratio is 47-12, which is almost proportionally identical to Maye’s career 63-16. Johnson, for the most part, is a turnover-averse passer without being cripplingly risk-averse, which is exactly what you want for an offense that pushes the ball downfield. His interceptions seem to come more from bad throws than bad decisions, which leads to some frustrating plays but lets you trust him to lead an offense.

Playing on Script & Schedule: Consolidating his positive big-play balance, this has to be the main thing that made Johnson attractive to the Tar Heel coaching staff. When he’s only got one read to make, or when the call is for a three-step drop and rip, or when he decides early enough that nothing downfield is working and he should check down, Johnson makes positive plays. A lot of his best production at A&M was throwing pretty shallow balls to playmakers and letting them cook — just about half of all his attempts in 2023 went between 0 and 9 yards from the line of scrimmage, and he completed 80% of them for 8 yards per attempt. Two scores to two picks is less than ideal in that range, but still, it’s clear Johnson is somebody who, first and foremost, can keep the chains moving with his arm.

Processing/Football IQ: To me, this is Johnson’s biggest weak spot. Pre-snap, he’s fine but nothing to write home about — I don’t think he had the latitude to change plays at the line very often as a backup, but he’s perfectly adequate making RPO reads and playing the quick game. Post-snap, though, he consistently feels a step slow reading what’s in front of him, anticipating guys coming open, seeing surprises down the field, and, most worryingly, reacting to pressure. That last bit really mitigated his effectiveness as a runner the past couple of years, because while he’s mobile enough to run away from pressure, he’s rarely quick enough to actually react to that pressure to make good on his physical tools. I note below that he took a lot of hits, and while some of that was due to a pretty bad offensive line in pass protection, a big chunk of it was his own doing because he wasn’t getting the ball out when he should have. And unlike UNC’s past two quarterbacks, who were criticized themselves a fair amount for holding on to the ball too long, I don’t think Johnson was holding it hoping something would develop, but just because he isn’t downloading all the available information fast enough. Watch the wheel route break open immediately on this third-down-and-short play as Johnson holds it, then inaccurately dinks it to the flat under pressure instead:

slowed down to 0.7 speed so you can see the FB wheel develop more easily

Pocket Mechanics: As a passer, Johnson is a statue in the pocket. He’s not immobile, as mentioned earlier, but he seems to have just two modes: standstill passer and scrambler. He doesn’t manage the space around him effectively to avoid or negate pressure, which makes life harder for his offensive line, even though he has decent instincts avoiding rushers when he’s made up his mind to run. A&M’s offensive line got blamed for a lot of the sacks he took, and they weren’t very good, but many of those sacks were primarily on the quarterback. His propensity to get sacked, combined with his maddening habit of backing away from pressure instead of simply taking a sack or trying to avoid it laterally, creates huge negative rushing yards that belie his actual mobility as a runner. His bad pocket footwork compounds with his discomfort throwing on the run; I don’t like how long he takes to reset his platform once he’s moved off his spot. He creates this sack by running into pressure instead of making his left tackle right with smart pocket movement in a pretty clean pocket.

Here’s another pocket that he could have stepped into to avoid pressure, rather than seeing it and backing into it:

On the other hand, I also watched him way too often make unnecessary jump-passes or fadeaways when pressure made him uncomfortable instead of just standing tall and ripping it, especially on late checkdowns where he’d complete passes because they were basically handoffs, but make his running backs work just to catch them. It was weird to see, because you’d think that the silver lining to being that much of a standstill passer would be that light pressure wouldn’t get him off his spot. There’s a guy rushing at him here, but he has space to at least stand still and put this ball on a line instead of backing off and lobbing it. Even better would be taking a lateral step and resetting to hit the speed out at the top of the screen, but alas:

Intangibles: If there’s one refrain from A&M fans, Johnson’s coaches, and his teammates, it’s that he’s next-level tough. He took a lot of hits the last two years behind a struggling Aggie offensive line and didn’t miss a beat, and played a game late in the season even after cracking a rib — he was only deemed out for the season after cracking a couple more. He never played afraid of contact, plunging into the trenches on QB sneaks (and usually converting them), and took, by my count, 14 sacks in his 7.5 games of action on a pretty run-heavy offense. His teammates appear to have responded well to him. Also, his dad is Brad Johnson, former NFL quarterback, so that’s cool.

TL;DR: Max Johnson, for somebody who’s never started a season as his team’s starter, is certainly a starting-caliber quarterback at the Power Five level, but I don’t see much more than that. He’ll make the plays he needs to so that an offense isn’t choked up, and he won’t lose games for you, and he’s enough of a threat that defenses can’t gamble with either heavy or light boxes, giving his OC freedom to run his entire offense. But his relative lack of arm talent, post-snap processing, reactivity, and creativity put a pretty heavy lid on how much he can elevate the offense he’s running. With rock-solid architecture around him — an effective playcaller and a bevy of playmakers — he’s somebody who can let them shine. He just won’t, from my view at least, be part of that shine himself.

Games watched: vs Arkansas (2022), vs Alabama (2023), @ Ole Miss (2023), vs South Carolina (2023)