North Carolina QB looking to go out in style

Hillside High School is going to get a lot of attention this year. They will more than likely have a better record, sure. But the big reason is the fact that they have some serious talent, especially on the offensive side of the ball. You have all heard plenty about Greg Little, but Greg himself will admit that if it weren't for their quarterback, it would be harder for him to look good. This year Mike Johnson will attempt to do that again, while hopefully helping his cause out as well.

You could say that last year was a time for learning for a lot of the players from Hillside High School in Durham, North Carolina. The "Hornets" finished the year 4-7, dealing with a team that was sometimes on, but more often than not, off.

The 2006 season should be a lot better for Hillside, because all those players that were just getting used to each other, now have that familiarity and a little talent to boot.

You have running back/receiver Greg Little, who could be one of the higher rated prospects in the south. Then there's Jonathan Smith, a quick linebacker with good size, who can play either side of the ball, but has found a definite comfort level when he's out there lighting opponents up. Tyree Bullock is another and he could be the best cornerback in the state.

Michael Johnson adds himself to the mix at the quarterback position. Johnson isn't long on size as he stands just 6 foot, 1 inches tall and weighs just over 200 pounds. And he's not a burner, Johnson saying that he runs around a 4.7/40. What he is, is someone Greg Little depends on and has confidence in, because in the "West Coast" offense, that's where Johnson apparently thrives.

"He spreads the ball around really well," Little said of Johnson. "You can't key on one particular player, because Michael is really good at seeing the whole field."

Johnson would say that is indeed one of his best traits and in an offense like this, the mind can be as potent a weapon as the body. "You better know how to read defenses in an offense like this," he said. "How quick can you read what the defense is doing? Are they rolling into different coverages or disguising the blitz?"

"You need to see everything when you come to the line."

Michael also says that if you want to be a successful quarterback in this system, unlike some quarterbacks who seem to want to do anything other than stay in the pocket, you need to be able to stand in there and get your job done. "You have to have great pocket presence and poise," Michael said. "Everyone is always coming at you, so you can't even look at the pressure, because you will be thinking about it."

"You need to keep your eyes downfield and sometimes you just have to take the hit if that's what it takes to get rid of the ball on time."

If Johnson sounds like a savvy quarterback, it's because he's been playing the position since he was in eighth grade. That has a lot to do with the fact that he doesn't throw a lot of risky passes, trying to make something out of nothing, which is one reason why he sports a better than 2-to-1 ratio of touchdowns to interceptions, Michael tossing 20 TDs on the year to his eight interceptions.

There were a couple of those interceptions, though, that Johnson feels he didn't have a lot of control over just what was going to happen in the end. "They were "Hail Marys", he said. "We were down by a touchdown or less, time was running out and we had to toss it downfield. It's just one of those things; you throw it down there, try to make sure it's in the end zone and basically, you just pray."

Those didn't work out, both getting picked off, but Johnson is resolute that this up-coming season, there won't be a lot of need for those kinds of plays. With a lot of talent in place and a team loaded with seniors, confidence is riding high. "Oh, we've got a team this year," he said. "Last year was a lot of guys just not being on the same page, being young or whatever, but we have a great core group of players this time around."

"We didn't do that good this last season, but we have some really high expectations this year."

Johnson has some high expectations of himself, though, everything revolves around winning. Like teammate Greg Little, he'll take the Ws over the stats. He is hoping for a good year, trying to better the 1,500 yards he throw for last season, completing close to 60% of his passes. Johnson feels that if he does his job and the team does indeed win, the numbers will be there in the end. "I just need to play my game and we need to work together, because we have the talent to beat, I think, anyone we play," he said. "Everyone knows what Greg can do, but if they look at him too much, if I do my job, I can make that team pay by getting it to guys who are getting a little softer coverage."

Everyone is looking at Little, but Johnson hasn't been without getting some attention of his own. This early in the process, only a handful of players around the country are sporting offers, most getting letters at this point, filling up the mailbox daily. Michael has gotten this share, coming from the likes of Pittsburgh, North Carolina, Arizona State, Washington State and N.C. State.

As far as where he's looking, Johnson hasn't thought much about it, because he's about as open as open can be. He just wants to make sure he's at the next level doing what he thinks he does the best. Fortunately, no school is recruiting him as anything else. "Everyone is looking at me as a quarterback," Johnson said.

"I have worked so hard, that's what I want to play, so it's encouraging that people are thinking of me as a potential quarterback for them. It's only going to make me work that much harder, because for me, I still have a lot I want to accomplish even before I get to college."

Johnson does have some specific goals already when looking at the next level. First and foremost is education. An aspiring lawyer, Michael said that he's looking for the school that can combine a good education in that area along with offering a good tradition in football. If they meet that criteria, the rest is gravy.

Hillside High School is looking for a little gravy this year. With a ton of starters back on defense, 10 starters back on offense, a team that went 4-7 a year ago has big goals going into the next season, for many the last of their prep-career. Johnson and company are determined that it's going to be a year that nobody that follows North Carolina high school football will forget anytime soon.

"We're rising from the ashes, I guess you could say," he said. "Because of how we did last year, nobody probably expects that much out of us this year. That's what's going to make it that much sweeter. We have only one goal and that's a state title."

"That will make everyone take a second look."

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