From zero to Air Raid in one unexpected call

CONNER JOHNSON DIDN'T know what the future had in store for him. He threw for a ton of yards his senior season, for a coach known to groom outstanding quarterbacks. And at 6-5 and 220 pounds, he possessed a frame that screamed big time. Yet no scholarship offers were on the table. Signing Day loomed and his dream of playing college ball looked cloudy. Then the phone rang.

On the other end of the line was a college coach. And not just any college coach. It was Mike Leach.

The man whose passing genius at Texas Tech generated a segment on 60 Minutes and a feature piece in the New York Times Magazine wanted the unwanted kid from University High in Spokane to join him in Pullman. Come down to the Palouse as a preferred walk on, Leach said.

"I was mostly surprised because the previous staff was recruiting me a little bit then they told me the spot had been filled and they were no longer in search of a QB," Conner Johnson said. "But the fact that someone of Leach's prestige took the time to call and offer me an opportunity to come down and play in Pullman was exciting."

To say the least. Especially when you consider where Johnson's career stood not so long ago. He transferred to U-High from Gonzaga Prep just before his junior year and wound up sharing time at quarterback with a senior.

"To say Conner was off the recruiting radar headed into his senior season is an understatement," says Paul Sorensen, the columnist who has been coaching and/or broadcasting high school ball in Spokane for the better part of three decades. "He's a great athlete but he wasn't evaluated during the critical junior year and that left him off the radar in a big way."

After an off-season working with U-High head coach Bill Diedrick, Johnson came into his senior season ready to roll. Mind you, this is the same Bill Diedrick with a college coaching résumé that features a dozen quarterbacks who went on to play in the NFL, including Drew Bledsoe, Brady Quinn and Marquess Tuiasisopo.

"Coach Diedrick, at first impression, seemed like a gingerly guy, then you get on the practice field with him and he gives you the closest thing to a D-1 college experience," Johnson said. "I developed and I grew a lot...and I'm looking forward to the next stage."

Under Diedrick's direction, Johnson said his skills and confidence sky rocketed. Johnson said he now feels that his footwork is the best asset of his game. He added that he feels having strong footwork is more important for a QB than a strong arm.

In league games this past season, Johnson threw for 2,215 yards – the second-highest total in Greater Spokane League history behind current Cougar QB Connor Halliday. Those now below him on the list include Mark Rypien and Ryne Sandberg.

But Johnson still received only mild recruiting interest from schools such as Montana, Idaho, Utah and Iowa.

The lack of interest, Diedrick told the Spokesman-Review late in the season, was due to the fact so much of college recruiting revolves around a player's junior campaign. "He'll be a good find for somebody," Diedrick said at the time. "He's a big kid with a strong arm. He's very intelligent. He's got such an upside. Look at what he's done basically in a year. His best growth and development are ahead of him."

But a week before Signing Day he didn't have a single offer or even a walk-on invitation. Then came the unexpected call from Leach.

"When Coach Leach talked to me he just expressed the fact that he's had a number of walk-ons that have ended up starting for him and one of them (Sonny Cumbie in 2004) led the nation in passing yards. He wants to invest in me, work with me, and he thinks I can do that as well."

Johnson will graduate in June, then plans on heading to Pullman to take summer classes and begin training with the rest of the team. He has been in touch with Leach, and said he and the rest of the staff expect big things from him in his Cougar career.

"It's exciting," Johnson said. "I know Leach is known as an innovator for that spread offense. I look forward to being a part of the program and seeing it evolve because it's going in the right direction, especially under Leach."

The Cougars figure to be well-stocked at quarterback when the 2012 season commences. Leach has said Jeff Tuel and Halliday will battle it out for starting honors beginning this spring, with David Gilbertson and Cody Clements waiting in the wings, and two freshmen –- Johnson and Austin Apodaca -- expected to redshirt.

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