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“I found my niche”: Longtime Rice QB JoVoni Johnson excited for transition to receiver

Rice’s wide receiver room now consists of two quarterbacks who have started and won an FBS game.

Marshall v Rice Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

There is a large discrepancy between the number of high school quarterbacks at the collegiate level and the number of college quarterbacks. Position changes are commonplace among QBs at the FBS stage, and sometimes it works out for the better. In recent history, we’ve seen Joel Lanning and Chazz Surratt dominate at linebacker, Roschon Johnson thrive at running back, and Braxton Miller showcase his athleticism at wide receiver.

Just last offseason, Rice transitioned quarterback Luke McCaffrey to wide receiver, and the decision paid off as McCaffrey looked like a natural at his new position and wound up leading the team in receptions. This offseason, the Owls officially reiterated that move with a different player who once shared the quarterback room with McCaffrey — JoVoni Johnson.

“He’s a stud. It’s so cool to watch somebody go through a lot of similar things that you have,” McCaffrey said of Johnson. “I made that transition as well and to be able to go through that together, we’ve bonded like crazy. We’ve been able to communicate and be on the same terms when we talk to each other.”

JoVoni Johnson started three games at quarterback for Rice in 2019 and 2020, but after appearing in only two games over the past two seasons, Johnson figured his talent could best be utilized elsewhere.

“I found my niche,” Johnson said. “I can see myself making a difference on the field and that just means the world to me. Where this team has come from, what I’ve seen the program go through, and just being able to contribute to that — it’s a big deal for me.”

Now, Rice is the only program in the country to have two quarterbacks who have started and won an FBS game in its wide receiver room. And Johnson’s lone victory as a starting quarterback wasn’t ordinary or forgettable — it was Rice’s only win over an AP Top 25 team since 1997. On Dec. 5, 2020, he strolled into Huntington, WV to battle a No. 15 ranked Marshall squad and exited in triumphant fashion as the architect to a 20-0 shutout victory.

Marshall v Rice
JoVoni Johnson completed 10-of-14 passes as the starting quarterback for Rice’s 20-0 win over #15 Marshall.
Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

Johnson started the following Saturday against the eventual CUSA champion UAB Blazers. However, he suffered a game-ending injury in the fourth quarter of a one-score game. While it appeared the quarterback’s promising career was just starting to blossom, the play that coincided with the injury featured his final collegiate pass. While Johnson spent the 2021 and 2022 seasons as a resident of the quarterback room, he was usually buried below second-string on the depth chart, and five different Owl signal callers started over him during that span.

“It’s hard and I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t hard,” Johnson said. “But I play football because I love my teammates. So when I get to see my teammates go out there, I’m supportive of my teammates, but in the back of my mind I’m like, ‘Man, I wish I was playing out there.’ That’s where the fun is. Staying positive was a big thing for me, and finding the joy in being in the position that I’m in — I’m at Rice University playing football and I could be a million other places. It really made me love the game more. You really find your love for something when you’re not able to do it.”

Yet through two years of competing for playing time with little to no avail, Johnson committed to remaining a Rice Owl. He attempted one final shot at quarterback last spring and during fall camp. But after falling short of the top two quarterback spots on the depth chart for 2022, he collaborated with Rice’s coaching staff to find other ways to contribute. One of those ways involved working out as a scout team wide receiver. Heading into this spring with that experience under his belt, Johnson approached the coaching staff and officially requested a position change — a request which was received in a welcoming manner.

“I want to stay around this team. I love the guys here. If I can play receiver to help out — and I had tried it out, and it went decently well — if I can do this to help our team win games, then I’m all in for the switch,” Johnson said. “At the end of the day, it was something I came to the coaches about and decided to do. The coaches were excited for it. Our receivers were excited for it. I moved into the room and now it feels like I’ve been there for my entire time at Rice.”

JT Daniels, Rice’s new quarterback for the 2023 season, is a quintessential film junkie with a complex understanding of the game. The journeyed veteran has traversed through four rosters — USC, Georgia, West Virginia, and now Rice — working with dozens of different wideouts in his six years of college football. Yet, Daniels was instantly impressed by Johnson’s abilities as a receiver, utilizing his past experience as a passer to understand quirks such as quarterback vision and how that affects route running.

“Our whole receiver room is really, really smart,” Daniels said. “They understand the game from a quarterback’s perspective. The difference it makes is wins and losses. You have to play quarterback to understand that probably the most difficult part of playing quarterback is seeing over the line of scrimmage because you never will do it. There’s a lot of throws that you’ll make where you’ll see someone’s glove or a little part of a helmet, and you have to know where they’re gonna be. When you have receivers that understand how important it is to be in the exact right spot at the exact right time, then you can be a successful team passing the ball.”

But Daniels sees more in Johnson than a converted quarterback with a figurative PhD in the game of football. Daniels also observes natural receiver abilities — some which aren’t easily replicable — in the 6’4”, 204 pound athlete, allowing him to thrive at his new position from the get-go.

“The athleticism part speaks for itself,” Daniels said. “What I see beyond him just being a phenomenal leader, a great player, is how intentional he goes about everything that he does and how much better he has gotten at things I don’t deem as super teachable like ball skills, over-the-shoulder adjustment. There’s a lot of really difficult things to learn that guys are just born with. The best ball skill guys are just born better at it, but JoVo has 100 percent learned and become phenomenal at it in a short period of time.”

No position change is truly seamless, even if it appears to be on the surface level. Route-running is one of the greatest challenges typically observed for quarterbacks switching to receiver, as the postures required to play each position vary to a significant degree. No player on Rice understands the difficulties of this transition better than McCaffrey, who has been an excellent mentor to Johnson after previously sharing the quarterback room together in 2021.

“The growth when you switch positions, it’s anything but linear,” Johnson said. “There are a lot of ups and downs and when I get to the downs, it’s great knowing I have somebody who I can talk to who’s been through the same thing. So I go to Luke and I talk to him, like ‘I’m slipping on routes,’ and he’s like, ‘You’re doing the right things. Keeping working on these things and it’s supposed to happen like this. You’re not gonna be perfect at everything you do the first time you do it.’ It’s great having someone I can relate to, that can relate to me, and can help motivate me when you don’t have your best day at receiver, or when you do have a really good day, someone in your corner who’s just rooting for you.”

When McCaffrey made the transition last offseason, he had virtually zero past experience playing wide receiver. The same goes for Johnson, who has been a lifelong quarterback since falling in love with the game at age nine. Yet, Johnson could become an immediate contributor for the Owls. This summer, the program watched its receiver room thin out as 2022 receiving yards leader Bradley Rozner transferred to NC State in July while 2021 receiving touchdowns leader Cedric Patterson medically retired from the sport.

Rice Football
Luke McCaffrey (center) and JoVoni Johnson (right) shared the quarterback room together for the 2021 season.
Photo by Brett Coomer/Houston Chronicle via Getty Images

With increased opportunity available in the depth chart, Johnson’s peers believe there exists a skillset within the former quarterback that’s capable of immediate success.

“He’s explosive. He has every single tool capable of being a great receiver,” McCaffrey said. “At the end of the day, he’s just apt as an athlete, so the minute he has the ball in his hands, he’s immediately dangerous. To be able to watch him after he already has gotten in the ball in his hands — to go run around and do what he does naturally — it’s special. Yards after catch, whether he’s getting a reverse, whether we put him in the backfield and give him the ball like he used to do at quarterback — it’s cool to be able to watch him do it with the ball.”

What Johnson brings to the receiver room extends beyond the gridiron and the film room. During the two seasons where he played sparingly, he remained one of the most supportive teammates on that roster, and that support always reciprocated. Johnson’s commitment to his teammates, coaching staff, and the game of football have been highly evident during his time in Houston, and his relentless passion has become contagious during his time with the Owls.

“He’s a top-tier kind of human being,” McCaffrey said. “To be able to have a relationship with him on and off the field is something that you play football for. That’s the reason that you come into the locker room, have workouts every day, because when you have people like that who love the game, who really care, and are going through similar things, you’re both gonna grow together.”

Johnson is about to embark on his fifth year of college football, all with the Rice Owls. In addition to his duties with the football team, the economics/sport management major is a four-time CUSA Commissioner’s Academic Medal recipient and a five -time CUSA Commissioner’s Honor Roll awardee — at one of the most academically prestigious universities in the FBS.

While Rice’s coaching staff believes Johnson will see unmitigated success in the real world one day, for now, the former quarterback is taking on a new challenge simply due to his love for the sport and for the same program that recruited him over four years ago.

“He loves being on this team. He loves football. He’s a bright kid,” offensive coordinator Marques Tuiasosopo said. “There’s a lot of things he could do if he just shut it down and start in the real world. So you want to see it happen because he’s so dedicated. When a lot of people would have given up on themselves, he just believes in himself and he’s done some really, really good things.”