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Penn Wood’s Johnson preparing for leadership role

All-Delco quarterback Desman Johnson of Penn Wood looks to follow up a record-setting junior season with a better senior campaign.

LANSDOWNE >> Desman Johnson is well-aware of the expectations that come with being the county’s single-season passing champion.

The rising senior from Penn Wood is arguably Delco’s top football talent. Set to begin his third full season as the Patriots’ starting quarterback, the 6-2, 245-pounder has attended college camps at Boston College, Virginia and Syracuse. 

Johnson’s talent is undeniable. He’s a quarterback trapped in a linebacker’s body, which makes him a viable commodity, a freight train who can shake off tackles with a flick of a hand. He features a cannon of a right arm, which he has used to throw for 60 touchdown passes in his All-Delco career.

Despite the many plaudits and accomplishments on the field, Johnson realizes that his final season at Penn Wood could be his most challenging. After winning back-to-back Del Val League championships, the Patriots this summer are looking to replace 22 seniors, including 2018 Daily Times Player of the Year Kennedy Poles, who shattered season and career receiving records while catching balls from Johnson.

This is Johnson’s team now. Every defense that he sees this year will be focused on stopping him.

“I have to get in better shape, but I’m feeling good about the season,” said Johnson, who played basketball during the winter months to improve his conditioning. “The biggest thing is leadership. You know how a lot of seniors left from last year, and we’ll have a lot of new guys who never played varsity before. I’ve got to be the guy who steps up and be the leader of the team.”

Johnson is naturally a laid-back, quiet kid, but to take the next step in his development he has to become a captain who speaks loudly when necessary and, most importantly, sets a great example for the underclassmen with his hard work and dedication. Johnson is ready to do exactly those things.

“We lost a lot of experience and he knows he has to be a leader on this team now,” coach Ato Troop said. “After the season that he had last year, being an all-state quarterback (Pa. Writers Class 5A First Team), there are a lot of guys here that look up to him, so it’s a different level of pressure. He’s the man now and he’s got to carry himself accordingly.”

In his All-Delco campaign last fall, Johnson broke the county’s single-season passing record, finishing with 2,896 yards. His 30-touchdown season helped the Patriots go undefeated in the Del Val League and advance all the way to the semifinal round of the District 1 Class 5A playoffs. That final game still lingers in the mind of Johnson, who wishes he could’ve done more to lead his team to victory.

Of course, with the loss came controversy and regret. Penn Wood reluctantly agreed to give up home field advantage to West Chester Rustin on account of poor field conditions as a result of a snowstorm in the week leading up to the big game. Johnson hasn’t quite moved past that important detail. The Patriots haven’t lost a game at Kerr Field since Oct. 29, 2016. While it’s easy to make excuses, the Patriots still believe the result would have been much different had they kept the game at home.

Johnson is ready to turn the page. While the Patriots will look a lot different in 2019, they’re still the team to beat in the Del Val.

“I think we have a lot of potential,” Johnson said. “This year, you have more people here that are willing to listen and willing to learn. I just think this team will be able to learn more and be more mature, and we can be a great team.

“No matter what, for every game we’re going to be prepared because we have good coaching. We’ve just got to make sure everyone puts in the effort.”

Johnson isn’t concerned about breaking more records, even though he’s a mere 1,482 passing yards away from setting the career passing record of 6,994 yards set by Marple Newtown’s Anthony Paoletti in 2017.

“I’d rather we have gone way further last year than we did instead of the stats, but it’s still a big accomplishment to me,” he said. “There have been a lot of good quarterbacks to come through Delco. To be able to take some records with me is nice, but I’m not going to think about it a whole lot. I just want to go out and win games.”

Johnson takes work seriously both on and off the field. He is enrolled in AP calculus and AP history classes this fall. Johnson also wants to do more outside of football, too. In recent years Penn Wood football, with the guidance of community outreach coach Valencia Peterson, a.k.a. “Coach V,” has established a program called Coaching Boys Into Men. The program focuses on teaching Penn Wood student-athletes how to respect themselves and others through a series of training sessions while becoming valuable members of the community.

“I know I should be doing more community service, and with Coach V, I’ll definitely be doing a lot more this year,” Johnson said.

Several college programs, including Boston College and Virginia Tech, have expressed interest in Johnson’s talents. In addition to quarterbacking the Patriots, Johnson will show up on the defensive side of the field, too. Johnson is aware that college coaches may view him as a linebacker or defensive lineman.

“I just want to keep working hard,” he said.

For Johnson, greatness awaits.

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