Any conversation about the best Illini quarterbacks of the last thirty years starts with Jeff George Sr. From there, highly effective signal callers such as Kurt Kittner and Jason Verduzco enter the conversation.
The discussion would be incomplete without mentioning the memorable 2007 Rose Bowl season led by Juice Williams and the tail end of the Zook era with Nathan Steelhaase.
Recency bias could also lure Wes Lunt into the conversation.
However, when discussing Illini quarterbacks of the modern era, Johnny Johnson is often forgotten, but his years in Champaign were some of the more memorable in recent Illini history, mostly because Johnson’s teammates on the other side of the ball, Kevin Hardy and Simeon Rice, went on to NFL stardom. Still, Johnson accomplishments during said era are notable.
- Johnson threw for 5,293 yards (eighth-most in school history) from 1993-95.
- Johnson led the Illini to a massive upset over Michigan in Ann Arbor in 1993.
- He also led a trifecta of blowout victories over Iowa in 1993 (49-3) in Iowa City, in 1994 in Champaign (47-7), and in 1995 back in Iowa City (26-7).
- Johnson was under center when the Illini upset a young, but extremely talented Ohio State team, 24-10, in Columbus in 1994.
- Johnson was unstoppable early on in the memorable home loss to Penn State in 1994 when he led Illinois to a 28-14 halftime lead against the No. 2 ranked Nittany Lions before falling 35-31.
- If the above were not enough, Johnson was the MVP of the Illini’s 30-0 win over East Carolina in the Liberty Bowl.
Despite his success, Johnson was a tale of untapped potential mostly because then-Illini coach Lou Tepper had a rotating door at offensive coordinator. Despite the coaching chaos, Johnson had come into his own with offensive coordinator Greg Landry in 1993 and 1994. But, Tepper dismissed Landry after 1994. Johnson had to, subsequently, endure another offensive coordinator change his senior year in 1995. The new scheme did little to take advantage of Johnson’s strong arm. So, Johnson struggled mightily in 1995 and his draft stock plummeted.
After his career in Champaign, Johnson had short stints in the arena league and in the NFL. Johnson, a political science major at Illinois, found a career at JP Morgan in Chicago. He also founded Covenant Sports Training, a sports training center to train middle school and high school students. In 2014, Johnson took over as head coach of his high school alma mater, North Chicago, but was subsequently fired for posting dismal results.
This setback did not deter Johnson from continuing a coaching career. He landed on his feet and is now the Quarterback Coach and Passing Game Coordinator at Itasca Community College in Grand Rapids, Minnesota.
Mid-90s Illini football will always conjure up images of Hardy and Rice abusing opposing quarterbacks, but we should always remember the man who helped the Illini offense go during that era.