As the sun disappears behind the bleachers and the stadium lights begin to illuminate the field, the Pinnacle High School football team disperses. Amid the chaos, senior quarterback J.D. Johnson is hard to miss. Maybe it’s his 6-foot-4 frame, or the University of Michigan ball cap that he wears proudly.
“I honestly just fell in love the minute I was on the campus,” Johnson said.
In the past seven years, one right after another, the Pioneers have had success shaping Division I quarterbacks. Before Johnson came Spencer Rattler, who has begun his journey at the University of Oklahoma. And before him, Brian Lewerke, who has made his mark at Michigan State.
An extensive evaluation process helps the staff determine who will the snaps each season, Zupke said.
“In a typical year, it’s a process that goes from spring ball through summer passing league into fall camp and that’s usually how the decision is made,” Zupke said.
The offseason gives Zupke and his coaching staff an opportunity to see how each quarterback progresses. Through evaluating talent, they are better able to determine who is best equipped at not just throwing the ball but throwing it under pressure.
“I have seen guys over the years that look fantastic in the summer with no rush but you’ve got to see that guy, how he is throwing the ball with guys coming at him.” Zupke said.
During the 2012-2013 season, the Pioneers had a battle at the quarterback position with senior Michael Sanders and upcoming sophomore Brian Lewerke. As the season was on the verge of beginning, Zupke was unsure who was going to lead his offense.
“I even told Michael Sanders you might think about changing positions because this kid is pretty special,” Zupke said.
Though he had more experience at the varsity level, Sanders recognized the talent that Lewerke had brewing, so he knew that he couldn’t let up.
“That back-and-forth competition was good for me and probably good for him, it was an everyday grind,” Sanders said.
When the season began, Zupke gave the nod to Sanders, and made Lewerke his backup. Sanders was content to provide guidance for Lewerke, keeping an open dialogue.
“I felt like the better he was, the better it was going to make me, watching each other day in and day out,” Sanders said.
Lewerke finished the remainder of his Pioneers career as one of the team’s leaders. Not only did he help the Pioneers to a 19-5 record his two years as a starter, he also amassed over 5,500 throwing yards and 71 touchdowns, Maxpreps.com, reports, and earned a scholarship to Michigan State after his 2014-2015 season.
Shake, Rattler and roll
Zupke had to go back to the drawing board to determine who was going to be the program’s new quarterback going into the 2015-2016 season. An incoming 6-2 freshman was coming in to change the landscape of the program for the next four years.
Enter Spencer Rattler.
Watching Rattler grow up from around the age of 5, Zupke could see his potential at a young age.
“He’s always been a pretty special athlete. I coached him in middle school as well, and he was doing things that were off the charts,” Zupke said.
Though it was rare to see a freshman start as the varsity quarterback, Zupke thought Rattler was the best option under center, and for the next four years, the Pioneers had their field general.
“We had a situation where a junior kind of bowed out, and he ended up being our best option,” Zupke said. “He then flourished from there.”
Leading into his senior year, Rattler had led the Pioneers to back-to-back conference titles for the program, where he was able to throw for over 9,220 yards and 93 touchdowns according to Maxpreps.com. Backing up the No. 1 quarterback in the nation, Johnson found himself learning a lot from Rattler..
“We compete every day in practice, which was awesome,” Johnson said. “Just seeing how he functions around his teammates and how he was a great leader really molded me to where I am today.”
An opportunity taken
In the midst of leading the Pioneers during his senior year, Rattler first went down with an injury, and then was declared ineligible due to conduct that occurred off the field. So the team ended up looking to Johnson to lead the team midway through the 2018-19 season. Though he was mentally prepared for this opportunity, Johnson was grateful for those that made his role even easier.
“My teammates really helped me calm down, and just stayed cool and told me that I got it,” Johnson said.
Tosh Martin, a teammate and friend of Johnson’s since the seventh grade, knew that he was going to handle the pressure well.
“Blocking for him is just natural now. We did it for a little bit last year, and now it’s full time,” Martin said.
The Pioneers were able to push for a respectable campaign behind Johnson’s arm, finishing the season 11-1 with an appearance in the 6A conference simifinals. Johnson had a part in 11 out of those 12 games, and started the last five games. Though he performed well, Johnson left that season unsatisfied.
“I never wanted the feeling again, losing to team in the semifinals, like being so close to our goal.”
So Johnson went right back to work, but first made a decision that would impact the next chapter of his life.
A Michigan man
Heading into his junior season, Johnson worked in summer camps and garnered the attention from national recruiters. He received offers from Division I schools including Arizona and the University of Oregon, ESPN.com reported. Zupke wasn’t surprised to see Johnson gain the attention of top tier schools.
“While his skillset is definitely different, there are definitely things that he has done better than Spencer,” Zupke said. “In some ways, he is a complete quarterback.”
Though the offers were starting to pour in, one university caught Johnson’s attention: the University of Michigan.
“I ended up going up there for a bowl practice, and I ended up falling in love with Coach (Jim) Harbaugh and (quarterback coach Ben) McDaniels.” Johnson said.
After his junior season, the decision was clear. So before the end of 2018, Johnson announced on Twitter a verbal commitment to the Wolverines.
“ I’m super excited to call myself a Michigan man,” Johnson said. “I cannot wait to get out there in December.”
A quarterback isn’t successful without a coach to guide them. Zupke credits the program’s ability to adapt to each of its quarterback’s strengths.
“The type of quarterbacks we were getting, and when we started committing more to an offense that opens it up and throws the ball more, with the receivers and athletes comes better talent at that position,” Zupke said.
Johnson feels honored that he is apart of this lineage of success at this position for the Pioneers.
“I honestly just feel blessed. It’s crazy to think about, that three quarterbacks are going to a Power Five school.” Johnson said.
Unlike Lewerke and Rattler, Johnson still has a chance to accomplish something for this program that hasn’t been done before: leading the Pioneers to their first 6A championship in program history.
“I just want to bring Pinnacle a state championship,” Johnson said. “I really have fulfilled everything else.”
Story by Corey Kirk, Cronkite News