It’s funny what a change of scenery can do.
This time last year, Steffan Johnson had just completed a 3-7 season as the quarterback for the North Port football team.
“I just tried to do my best every game,” he said of his time in North Port. “We just weren’t winning games, so it wasn’t really that fun. Sometimes I had questions about playing football, but with my love for the game, I can’t stop playing.”
Now, after Friday night’s 62-35 drubbing of previously undefeated Palm Beach Lakes, Johnson is the starting quarterback of a Venice team that’s one win away from a regional championship.
And that’s not even to mention his 387 rushing yards on Friday night set the school record for rushing yards in a game — breaking former NFL player Dri Archer’s single-game mark of 366 yards in 2008.
“To be honest, I never thought I’d be where I am right now,” Johnson said. “It’s a dream come true.”
To put into perspective the rapid ascent of Johnson, he only rushed for 169 yards all season for North Port last year. And as of five weeks ago, he wasn’t even taking offensive snaps for Venice.
After his record-breaking performance in Round 2 of the playoffs, he now has run for 765 yards (8.2 yards per carry) and 12 TDs.
When Johnson transferred to Venice this past spring, he was hoping for a fresh start and a new chance to prove himself as the quarterback he knew he could be.
But with quarterback Nico DallaCosta already experienced with the Indians playbook and ready to graduate from backup to starter, there wasn’t much need for Johnson on the offensive side of the ball.
So Johnson was moved to cornerback, where he immediately shined in spring scrimmages — grabbing multiple interceptions and locking himself in as a starter.
Though the 6-foot, 160 pound junior was willing to do whatever he could to help the team, it wasn’t the same as playing quarterback.
“I didn’t really like it,” Johnson said of playing cornerback. “I just liked getting interceptions and getting the ball.”
Even when DallaCosta suffered his first concussion of the year against Trinity Christian Academy on Sept. 6, the coaching staff felt secure with senior transfer Ryan Overstreet available as a backup.
But after DallaCosta was concussed again in a 49-7 loss to St. Frances Academy on Oct. 4 that put the Indians at 3-3, coach John Peacock began evaluating his other options.
It was a situation the head coach had never been in before after making it 12 seasons without a serious injury to any of his quarterbacks.
“We actually taught Malachi (Wideman) some stuff really early in the year when Nico had his first injury,” Peacock said. “We were gonna do that again and then I came in Monday and I said, ‘You know what? Let’s pull Steffan over. He’s played the position before. Let’s give him a chance.”
It took just one snap for Johnson to show what he can do when given a chance. He started Venice’s Week 8 game against Lakewood Ranch and ran in a 61-yard touchdown on the game’s opening play — dancing through the middle of the Mustangs defense before finding a hole and sprinting up the right sideline to the end zone.
He finished that game with 125 rushing yards and 2 TDs — a brief glimpse at what was to come. In each game following, his role in the offense continued to grow, but he still was splitting time with Overstreet. Though he couldn’t make much of an impact in a 30-13 loss to Manatee in the district championship game, Peacock had seen enough to stick with Johnson going forward.
“After the Manatee game with all the turnovers, we knew we had to make a change,” Peacock said. “Those have been the difference in our losses. Riverview we had four turnovers and Manatee we had four turnovers. If anything, we just can’t turn the ball over.
“So that’s what I went to. I didn’t expect he’d be this productive. I thought it would be more of him handing the ball off and running it. I didn’t expect him to make the plays he’s been making, but now he’s done it over and over and over again.”
In two playoff games, Johnson has done more than simply limit turnovers. His big-play ability has resulted in the Indians opening up three score leads midway through the first quarter in each game.
It’s not just his legs that have terrorized opposing defenses, either. As he’s grown more comfortable with each week, the coaching staff has opened up the passing game more and more.
After rushing for just four yards on 13 attempts against Manatee in the district championship, Johnson has good reason to believe he’ll deliver a better performance the second time around and keep building on what’s already become a historic performance.
“Last time, turnovers killed us,” Johnson said. “It was a wet game. But hopefully that won’t be the case this time. I’m gonna be better this time because I didn’t really get to follow the tracks. That was only my third game as quarterback, so I didn’t really know where the blockers would be at.
“When they won that game it was so heartbreaking watching them celebrate on our field. So now, we’re gonna have to repay the favor and celebrate on theirs.”