A Single Anything

Apr 20, 2022

When number 17 throws two touchdown passes tomorrow night in the Spring Game, you're going to grab your program and look up #17. And then you're going to say "Ryan Johnson? Who is Ryan Johnson?" Here, let me tell you.

Actually let me allow James Boyd to start us off. James was the Illini writer at the Herald & Review for about six months before he got a job covering the Indiana Pacers. And he wrote about Ryan Johnson's story last summer. This is James' story, so I feel like you should read it in his words. I'll cut-and-paste half of that article right here (but you should follow that link and read the whole thing):

Seventeen days.

Seventeen days straight in a pickup truck driving across the Midwest to paint parking lots for Hardee's fast food restaurants, 104 to be exact.

"No showers and you're sleeping in a truck. It's pretty interesting," Ryan Johnson said, laughing. "It's pretty greasy and grimy towards the end of the two weeks, but I tell you what, it's an experience for sure. It's another thing that's awesome for mental toughness because you just gotta keep going, you just gotta keep pushing."

Johnson began "striping" parking lots alongside a family friend May 3, and together they traveled to Michigan, Wisconsin, North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, Minnesota, Indiana and, of course, Illinois.

In the midst of those long days, Johnson, who committed to the Illini as a grad transfer walk-on Tuesday, never lost sight of his ultimate goal: playing Division I football.

"I packed 55 protein shakes in the back of the truck, bottles of water, a bunch of snacks. Just trying to be healthy, trying to keep my body good," Johnson said. "There were a lot of push-ups in the back of the trailer. I tried to get like 100 in a day."

Johnson, a Wisconsin native, had recently entered the transfer portal after three seasons at Division-II Northern Michigan, where he appeared in 20 games. The 6-foot-3, 205-pound quarterback threw for 2,844 yards with 17 touchdowns and 10 interceptions with a completion percentage of 54.9 during that span. Johnson could've stayed at Northern Michigan, but with two seasons of eligibility left, he decided to bet on himself and try to play at the Division I level.

Johnson estimated that he sent roughly 175 emails to 55 Division I programs around the country, hoping that one would give him a shot.

"There's a lot of quiet days," Johnson said. "There's a lot of days where you have no idea if you're even going to get another chance somewhere."

Included in Johnson's lengthy list of programs was Illinois, which he said he had a roundabout connection to through one of his former high school coaches who knows first-year Illinois football coach Bret Bielema.

It also helped that Johnson had the chance to get a brief look at Illinois' campus while passing through the state for work.

Soon, he would get a chance to visit up close.

"I actually got in contact with Illinois while in the truck on like our 85th parking lot," Johnson said. "Coach (Nate) McNeal (the director of recruiting for Illinois football), he answered the phone and was like, 'OK, how tall are? Send me your transcripts,' boom, boom boom. I remember sitting in the car after our 85th parking lot. I do not remember the city, but I think we were still in Illinois. It was unbelievable."

Johnson came to Illinois' campus Tuesday for a visit and a roughly 40-minute throwing workout at Memorial Stadium for offensive coordinator Tony Petersen. At the end, his dream officially came true when Bielema offered him a roster spot as a preferred walk-on.

Johnson committed right then and there.

"I was open to going to other places, and I had a bunch of Division-IIs on my plate, but I was putting those aside and really grinding and sending emails and taking, 'No,' for an answer," Johnson said. "Taking, 'No,' for an answer is huge, you gotta learn how to do that because I've only gotten one, 'Yes,' out of the 175 emails I sent. ... (Illinois) wanted me to come down in front of them, and I knew right then that was my opportunity. I showed up, had a really good time down there and I'm glad they liked what they saw."

When fall camp opened, there was a QB battle: Brandon Peters vs. Art Sitkowski. But there was also another QB battle: Matt Robinson -- who had thrown for 508 yards in his career so far, starting two games in 2019 and one in 2020 -- vs walkon Northern Michigan transfer Ryan Johnson. Deuce Spann in the QB room at the time, but he was moved to WR. Coran Taylor was moved to safety. Samari Collier was a true freshman. So the battle for the #3 QB spot was Robinson and Johnson. This will be important to our story.

At the start of the season, Peters had won the job. But in the first quarter of the first game, a Nebraska lineman came down hard on Brandon Peters shoulder and he was out for the game. Sitkowski came in, but I immediately began to wonder: if Art goes out for any reason, will the backup be Matt Robinson or might it be... Ryan Johnson?

Let me just say it this way. When you send out 175 emails and get one yes (a yes to a tryout, not a yes to a walkon spot), you don't really expect to be standing there on the sidelines in Week Zero knowing that you're one injury away from going in at quarterback on national TV. But having watched practice that August, and having listened to the coaches talk about the quarterbacks taking reps in scrimmages, I was pretty sure Ryan Johnson was one injury away at that point.

The talk at the time, of course, was that if anything happened to Art Sitkowski, the staff would just move Isaiah Williams back to QB and run the wildcat package until they could get him reps in the new offense. And there would be talk of that all season, as you will see in a bit. But I was fairly certain at the time that it was Ryan Johnson who was warming up in the bullpen.

Peters was out about 15 days, as it turned out, so he missed the UTSA game and the Virginia game, returning for Maryland on September 17th. And Sitkowski stayed healthy during those games, so Ryan Johnson sat back down in the bullpen. Peters was back at starter, Sitkowski was the backup, and Ryan Johnson was #3.

Fast-forward to the Penn State game in mid-October. During the preceding bye week, the staff had made a quarterback switch. Sitkoswki was named the starter and Peters was moved to #2. So for most of the Penn State game, it was Sitkowski at QB. But in the 4th overtime, Sitkowski landed awkwardly on his hand and broke his arm. Out of the season. Brandon Peters came in for the 5th overtime (it's still so funny to type out the number of overtimes) and won it in the bottom of the 9th with a bullet to Casey Washington in the endzone.

But this Sitkowski injury also meant something else. Ryan Johnson was back to #2. From striping Hardee's parking lots to one-injury-away.

And that injury happened in the Minnesota game in November. It was a minor injury - one that would take Brandon Peters out of the game for exactly one play - but this time Johnson wasn't just warming up in the bullpen. The manager called for the righty.

I should slow down here. This article is about that one snap, and I want to give you all the details that I can. I talked to Ryan Johnson about it last week, and I have some video clips ready to go, but I don't want to get ahead of myself. The details are important.

First, let me set the scene. Illinois is on the road playing #20 Minnesota. Illinois had a 14-0 lead going into the fourth quarter, but Minnesota just scored to make it 14-6 (they missed the extra point). Illinois gets the ball back with about five minutes left.

Chase Brown picks up four yards on first down, and on 2nd and 6, Brandon Peters keeps it and picks up eight yards for a first down. But after he was tackled, he was slow to get up (had the wind knocked out of him) and the officials call timeout for an injured player down on the field. This means he has to go out of the game for at least one play. This means Ryan Johnson is coming in. For one snap.

And it's not just any snap. There's 3:59 on the clock. Illinois has the ball, with the lead, on the road at #20 Minnesota. And in comes the D-II walkon who got one yes to take one snap in a Big Ten football game.

I asked him about it last week. The obvious question: what's going through your brain?

"Receive the snap and give it to Chase. I knew it was going to be a run play, so just.. receive the snap and give it to Chase."

Makes sense. It's all I'd be thinking about. But the main reason I wanted to talk to him was to ask him about something I observed in that moment. I apologized to him for even asking, because the point of this story wasn't going to be "did you almost drop it?", but I had noticed the slightest little hesitation when he was up under center. So I asked about it.

"You want.. you want to know honestly? Doug (Kramer) has a towel in his waistband that sometimes hangs in between his legs. And my hand was on the towel. And the ball was in between the towel and my fingers. I still had it, and we'd practiced so many times (with the towel there) that there wasn't going to be an issue, but I looked down before the snap and thought 'oh, the towel is right there'."

Can you imagine? You're approaching the center thinking "receive the ball and give it to Chase, receive the ball and give it to Chase" and then you're thrown a curveball with the ball and the towel getting caught up just a tiny bit. To me, that makes this story even better. Striping parking lots. One email. One walkon offer. Third string, then second string, then on the field, under center, at #20, and when you go to take the snap, you feel a piece of the towel between your hand and the ball. I'd probably faint right then and there.

He didn't. He received the ball and handed it to Chase. And then Brandon Peters came back in. And then Brandon Peters played out the rest of the season. BUT, there Ryan was, in a Big Ten game, with his family in the stands (his mom, dad, and one of his brothers were there), taking a snap.

I've gotten this far and I haven't even gotten to the video clips I made. Remember, this game was on ESPN2. So this wasn't just Johnson getting a snap at #20 with 4:00 left - it was a national TV game. Some guy in a Buffalo Wild Wings in Beaufort, South Carolina looked up from his lemon peps to see "Ryan Johnson, JR, Green Bay, WI" on the screen. To me, that's just about the coolest thing on the planet.

So here's the full clip. And make sure you have your sound on, because you'll want to hear the discussion between Roy Philpott and Kelly Stouffer during the broadcast:

OK, fine, you didn't follow directions and your sound was off. So I'll tell you what Kelly Stouffer said:

"You know, Philly, you and I were talking about it at the break - if you're just going to hand the football off in that situation, why not have Isaiah Williams in there, a former quarterback, and he's already been in the game at that wildcat type of position, but... Brandon Peters comes back right now anyway."

You weren't looking for an answer here, Kelly Stouffer, my least favorite draft pick in the history of any team I've ever cheered for, but I'll give you one. You don't put in Isaiah Williams because you don't want a shotgun snap in that situation. Doug Kramer hands the ball to Ryan Johnson, and Ryan Johnson hands the ball to Chase Brown. And then Peters comes back in, Illinois picks up one more first down, Illinois punts with 1:15 left, Blake Hayes and Tailon Leitzsey do their thing, Minnesota is pinned at the two, Blake Hayes snaps an oar over his knee, and then Kerby ends the game with an INT a few plays later. That's why you don't go wildcat with Isaiah Williams.

When watching that clip and hearing Stouffer say that, something clicked in my brain. He said that he and Philpott were "talking about it at the break." And this replay, on BTN+, was an ESPN feed. Many times, when ESPN sends their game film to BTN, they include all video during the commercials so you can often catch a hot mic or two (nobody tell them), so I rewound just to see if it captured their conversation. And sure enough, it did. Now you HAVE to turn the sound on:

"Has he played at all? I don't have him as having a single... anything."

{clears throat}

Hey Philly and Stouff. He has a single anything now. He has a snap that he deftly decoupled from the towel and handed to Chase Brown. And then Illinois won the game. And then he celebrated with his teammates and hugged his mom and dad. And now he's going to throw two touchdown passes in the spring game tomorrow night.

Do you get it now?


CapitalCityOutlaw50 on April 21, 2022 @ 02:50 AM

Another Northern Michigan connection... former walk-on Illini QB Drake Davis was on the Wildcats roster in 2021.

uilaw71 on April 21, 2022 @ 11:20 AM

Great backstory Robert, and good reporting.

Douglascountyillinifan on April 21, 2022 @ 03:41 PM

Great story Robert. Had IW taken any snaps under center at that point in the season?

mdonsbach on April 22, 2022 @ 01:33 AM

Two TD’s from a walkon just the wrong walkon lol.

jhoncarter on April 25, 2022 @ 05:57 AM

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