Dragon Heart: Ja’Quez Johnson Delivers for Brick in Crunch Time Against Jackson Memorial
JACKSON - A year ago against Jackson Memorial, Brick's Ja'Quez Johnson was just getting an opportunity to break into the lineup full time after an injury to a starter.
One season later, the senior wide receiver/cornerback has earned the ultimate compliment of his teammates and coaches: trust. When John J. Munley Field was shaking on Saturday night with the game on the line against Jackson Memorial and a fourth-and-goal play from the 7-yard line for the Green Dragons coming up, there was one player everyone on the sideline knew they didn't have to worry about.
"That's what we love about 'Jaq,''' Brick head coach Rob Dahl said. "Something can go bad, and he's one of those guys on our team that never panics. You look at the sideline and maybe a couple guys are panicking, but that's not Ja'Quez. He's very cool and collected."
With Brick down by seven and a capacity crowd roaring, Johnson came from left to right across the back of the end zone as a safety valve on a play initially designed to hit sophomore wideout Ja'Sir Taylor. Brick senior quarterback Carmen Sclafani rolled right, buying himself just enough time to see Johnson coming across. He lofted it up and Johnson snatched it out of the sky and got a foot down to send the Green Dragons' faithful into delirium. K.C. Stackable's extra point tied it up with 4:47 left in the game, and Brick went on to win a 30-24 overtime classic in a showdown of unbeaten teams.
"It was actually supposed to be a sprint-out pass to Ja'Sir (Taylor), but they told me to drag across just in case Ja'Sir wasn't open,'' Johnson said about the touchdown. "Carmen made a play and put the ball up there, and I got it. We always battle through adversity. That's our motto: 'Stay calm.'''
"We were running a comeback, and we had a breakdown,'' Sclafani said. "I rarely look at the drag, but you can always trust Ja'Quez when you throw the ball up to him."
Johnson's ability to have selective amnesia is one of his biggest attributes outside of his athleticism. He was beaten earlier in the game for a 52-yard touchdown pass on a trick play when Jackson Memorial receiver Kyle Johnson took the ball on a reverse and chucked it deep to fellow wideout Aaron Curet at the end of the first half to bring the house down. Johnson shook it off and got his head right back in the game so that when Brick needed him most, he was able to deliver.
"For a trick play developing that long, he was only a couple yards away from the guy, but he bit a little bit,'' Dahl said. "Ja'Quez is great with constructive criticism, and he's great coming back from adversity. It says a lot about him. He bounces back."
"We got into the locker room and said they had to use their whole playbook, they had to use a trick play to beat us, so you know they had nothing left,'' Johnson said. "We battled through adversity and made up for it. You just have got to clear your mind."
The only reason Brick had the ball in the first place on the drive that led to his clutch touchdown catch is because Johnson made an interception with eight minutes left in regulation. Jackson Memorial had just gotten the crowd roaring by stopping Brick on fourth down at the Jaguars' 8-yard line when two plays later, Johnson stepped in front of a pass down the middle of the field for a crucial turnover.
"The interception was huge,'' Dahl said. "They turned the game around from a momentum standpoint stopping us inside the 10 there, and then the momentum was right back in our hands because of the interception."
"That was huge,'' Sclafani said. "They tried getting us on play-action and 'Jaq' stepped up and made a play."
Johnson contributed in all facets of the game, as he also threw a key downfield block that sprung Sclafani for an 87-yard touchdown run in the first half to get the Green Dragons right back in the game after the Jaguars had opened with an 80-yard touchdown run by junior tailback Vinny Lee.
The victory against the defending Class A South champions allowed Brick to take a huge step toward its first division title since 2008 as well as a crucial step toward locking up a top-two seed and a pair of home games in Central Jersey Group IV, where the Green Dragons are the defending champions.
The win also avenged a 9-7 loss to Jackson Memorial last year that decided the division title. Johnson had seen time as a reserve up to that point, but had to step into the lineup because now-senior Joe Phillips got a concussion while playing quarterback, leaving a void in the secondary, where Phillips also starts. Johnson got the chance to play full-time, and he seized the opportunity.
"I knew I was great at DB, but we had two great tacklers there,'' Johnson said. "Alfredo Flores and Joe Phillips went down last year, so it was my time to shine. I stepped up and made some big plays in the first couple playoff games and the state championship."
"He's never looked back since,'' Dahl said. "Offensively and defensively, he's huge for us."
Johnson is one of the few two-way starters on a two-platoon Brick team, and he showed on Saturday night that even though he is primarily known for his work in the secondary, he is a dangerous weapon at wideout. The kid who wasn't even a full-time starter until this point last year is now being recruited by Sacred Heart, Stony Brook and Fordham, according to Dahl.
"They'll probably like this game,'' Dahl said before smiling.