It is one game plan A.C. Flora coaches do not mind sharing.
As far as they and the rest of the Falcons are concerned, do-it-all senior Denzel Johnson is South Carolina football’s best-kept secret.
“There’s no doubt about it,” offensive coordinator Dustin Curtis said. “I watch a lot of these guys on Saturdays not be able to do some of the things that he does.”
A.C. Flora’s strategy of late has been simple – get the ball in the hands of their versatile receiver. The plan has paid off, as Johnson has helped guide the 12-1 Falcons to a showdown Friday night with South Pointe for the Class 3A Upper State championship.
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“I just think he’s hitting his stride,” coach Reggie Shaw said. “… Any time you get him the ball, it’s a potential highlight play. We’re just real big fans of getting the ball in No. 8’s hands.”
It would be hard to fault the Falcons’ opposition for Johnson catching them off-guard. The senior had a relatively quiet regular season, as a nagging knee strain and a struggling passing game kept him from maximizing his talents.
But things began to click in A.C. Flora’s regular season finale against Dreher, when he hauled in a 50-yard touchdown catch in addition to running for 171 yards and a score out of the wildcat position.
“I wasn’t really meeting my expectations for the team,” he said. “So, I knew in the playoffs I had to come way better than the regular season.”
He and the Falcons offense have been in sync ever since. The receiver – nicknamed “Moss King” by his teammates for his Randy Moss-like highlight catches – has led A.C. Flora in receiving in all three of its playoff victories. Johnson hauled in six catches for 100 yards against Lancaster, including a pair of leaping sideline grabs, before adding a nifty 22-yard score against Emerald.
“Going to the playoffs, it could be his final game,” quarterback Brendan Greene said. “I’m not saying he didn’t give his all (before), but now he’s giving 150 percent to do the best he can.”
Realizing what Johnson could do with the football in his hands, Curtis made sure to get his stud receiver time in the backfield as well. After a learning curve of staying patient and waiting for blocks to set up, he became a threat from the backfield.
He has touchdown runs of 49 and 35 yards in the past two games and has totaled 139 yards on the ground during that time on six carries.
“I’ll be honest, he’s the best running back on the team now,” Curtis said. “He’s the best running back and best wide receiver.”
Johnson’s recent surge has helped lead A.C. Flora’s renaissance on the football field. The Falcons went 4-7 a year ago – a byproduct of poor leadership, Shaw said – before this season’s turnaround.
Shaw’s stud receiver has been at the center of that. The senior is one of a handful of veterans on a leadership council that meets weekly with coaches to find ways to improve team morale and discipline.
That has proven difficult for Johnson, who admits to not being the most vocal person on the team. He prefers to lead by example, something he has had little trouble with these days.
“I’m really a laid-back guy,” he said. “I just do what I do. So, it’s kind of hard showing others and telling others (what to do) and stuff like that.”
But he does not need to say much to get the attention of his teammates.
“He’s a quiet leader, but he leads by example all the time,” Greene said. “He’s really consistent with that.
“We see how hard he works in the weight room and see how it transfers over to the field. The younger kids see it, everybody else sees it and we want to do the same.”
A.C. Flora coaches are hopeful that hard work will lead to a college scholarship. Shaw said Johnson had offers from Clemson and Louisville before each class filled up, and now has the option to grayshirt for both USC and the Tigers.
Clemson wants him at corner – where he has 42 tackles, three pass breakups and an interception this season – while others prefer him as an athlete, thanks to his raw skills at the receiver position.
“That’s part of the reason, as a staff, we’re so dumbfounded and frustrated that he hasn’t gotten some of those bigger offers as a wide receiver,” Curtis said. “Because he does things at wideout you don’t teach, you don’t coach. He naturally attacks the ball at its highest point, he’s got a great vertical and he’s just so strong. His timing is perfect.”
Johnson will also get a chance to showcase his talents Dec. 13 in the North-South all-star game.
“My personal goal is if we make it to state,” Johnson said, “have a lot of recruiters see what I’m really made of and get more offers.”