Josh Johnson may be many things – a small-school prospect with big upside; an elite athlete who can hurt defenses with his arm or his legs; a player with a lot still to prove on the professional level – but he is not new to the NFL.
Or, as his head coach, Raheem Morris, puts it: "Josh is no spring chicken."
Johnson spent his entire 2008 rookie season as a game-day inactive after being drafted out of the University of San Diego in the fifth round as something of a project. As such, he seemed like something of an afterthought in the spring of 2009, when the Buccaneers drafted their quarterback of the future, Josh Freeman, and then conducted a battle for the '09 starting job between Byron Leftwich and Luke McCown. But Johnson was consistently impressive when he got a chance to play, and in the end the Buccaneers couldn't let him go. Instead, Leftwich was named the starter and McCown was traded to tonight's opponent, the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Johnson's stock rose so quickly, in fact, that he was the one who took the ball when the Bucs started 0-3 under Leftwich. Johnson got four starts before Freeman took over, and while they were the sort of up-and-down outings predictable for such a young passer, they had their share of promise. That was followed by a well-spent 2010 offseason in which Johnson continued to mature and hone his game.
As such, the Buccaneers head into 2010 more confident than ever in Johnson's abilities, and he has nailed down the number-two job behind Freeman. With Freeman sitting out the rest of the preseason with a thumb injury, Johnson has become the de facto starter and the Buccaneers are eager to see what he can do over the next two weeks.
"He's young but he's been around a little bit and he's played a lot of football," said Morris. "He started four games for us last year, and we're very confident in him and very intrigued by his talents. We can't wait to see him go out there and play tonight."
Morris purposely kept Freeman off the practice field this week so that the injured starter could focus on his rehab and avoid any temptation to test out his throwing hand. Freeman has helped his fellow quarterbacks break down tape in meetings between practices, but personally has already turned his attention to the Cleveland Browns, who will come to Tampa for the regular-season opener. Meanwhile, the Bucs prepared Johnson and Rudy Carpenter to carry most of the load on Saturday night.
"You'll see Josh Johnson start for us tonight and you'll see Rudy come in in the second half," said Morris. "You want to give Josh the feel of playing the whole first half, get him into a rhythm and into his groove, and get our first-team offense into its groove. If we get the ball to start the second half, you'll see one series with Josh Johnson in the third quarter as well. After that, we'll get a little Rudy Carpenter, and if time permits will get a chance to see a little Jevan Snead as well."
The Buccaneers will also keep their starting defense on the field for the entire first half. Whichever side would be due to take the field first to start the third quarter will remain in the game for one possession in the second half. The Jaguars may have a slightly different rotation planned but it's likely they'll follow the league-wide pattern and give their starters their longest exposure of the preseason, too. For the Buccaneers, that means a serious test from a team that plays with the sort of hard-nosed style that Morris has been trying to establish for two years in Tampa. That toughness is typified by the Jaguars' 5-7 running back, Pro Bowler Maurice Jones-Drew.
"You're not talking about a small man," said Morris of Drew. "Everybody confuses Maurice Jones-Drew with being small. No, he's just short. He's a man. And any time you play a Jack Del Rio team, you know you're going to have one thing in common, and that's toughness. Those guys are going to come out ready to play a physical football game because that's what their head coach is all about. That's a great chance for our guys to get out there and compete."
The Buccaneers will be competing among themselves, too, as is the main point of the preseason. Though the majority of the team's starting lineup for the regular season has been determined, there are still some jobs and some divisions of playing time still being contested. Sammie Stroughter will get the start at Z receiver on Saturday as a handful of players continue to compete for that position. There is also a notable battle taking place between Kareem Huggins and Derrick Ward to determine which will be Cadillac Williams' primary complement.
"We'll get a chance to see Cadillac go out there and really tote the load for us, like we plan to do for the season," said Morris. "And then we get a chance to really evaluate his two complementary backs, Kareem Huggins and Derrick Ward. We'll let those guys go out there and compete and be their best selves. That's what you look forward with those guys – how are we going to flow? What will be the continuity with those two backs? How will we flow during the season? How's it going to work when a guy comes out and a guy goes in? What's the variety of plays we can call?
"When you're talking about the number-two running back, that thing goes all the way to the end. It goes right up to the days right before Cleveland – who is going to be the number-two running back as far as getting a helmet on and who is most productive in other places as well? All that stuff will be taken into account for us and we look forward to the battle those two guys are having."
The Buccaneers have identified four players who will not suit up for tonight's game: Freeman, LB Jon Alston, G Davin Joseph and WR Maurice Stovall. Jeremy Zuttah will start at right guard in Joseph's place.
The Buccaneers and Jaguars will kick off at 7:30 p.m. at Raymond James Stadium. Buccaneers.com will provide a halftime update of the action and a detailed game story after the final whistle.