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Small-school advantages


So, should top high school quarterbacks start choosing to go to smaller schools?

"I think it's going to be a trend," said Josh Johnson, who went to the University of San Diego, a non-scholarship FCS (formerly Division I-AA) program. Johnson now is the backup quarterback for the Cincinnati Bengals. "If you go to a big school, there will be a five-star running back, or a five-star wide receiver. If you try to get them to learn an NFL offense, that might not be their strength at 18 or 19 years old. But they're a hell of a player, so the coaches have to simplify the game for them and allow them to be great athletes."

From Johnson's point of view, that inhibits the growth of the quarterback, who is almost a supporting player on these teams. "That's what I see in college football nowadays. A lot of these offenses are allowing these running backs and receivers to be great athletes. It's different at the small schools. All of the athletes have a similar skill set, so you need your quarterback to be on point."

Johnson was a good high school quarterback at Oakland Tech, but was small (5-10, 160 pounds) and got injured his junior year. The only schools that were interested in him were Idaho State and St. Mary's — the Gaels still had a team.

Johnson's high school coach, Alonzo Carter, approached Jim Harbaugh after Harbaugh's final game as an assistant coach of the Raiders. Harbaugh had just accepted the head coaching job at the University of San Diego. Coach Carter convinced Harbaugh to consider Johnson. Harbaugh ended up recruiting Johnson, and Johnson became the full-time starter at USD his sophomore year.

"I was able to start for three years, and it was a constant learning process for me in an NFL offense," said Johnson. "But those big schools, they just try to win because the coaches have got to save their jobs. They've got to get the ball to their best players and make the game easy for their best players. This doesn't help the quarterback develop."

Johnson grew 5 inches and put on 45 pounds at USD, and now is one of the most athletic quarterbacks in the NFL. Does he ever wish he had grown earlier as a teenager and gotten to play at a big school like Cal or UCLA?

"Honestly, no," Johnson said. "I like the player I've become. I like the person I've become from going to USD and I'm very comfortable with that. I don't know if I would have been able to become that somewhere else. Going to these bigger schools, you've got to deal with five-star recruits and guys who are hyped up. Stuff that you deal with in the NFL. Now that I've been in the NFL, I don't know if I really would have wanted to deal with that in college.

"We had something special there at USD. It was a bunch of guys who just wanted to play football, and there was no added incentive because we were paying to go to school."

Think of small schools as a learning laboratory, not a factory of winning.

Like Johnson, Garcia was a small quarterback who was overlooked. San Jose State didn't recruit him out of high school. He played his freshman year at Gavilan Junior College in Gilroy. His father was the head coach.

"In no way do I look back and wish that the road was any easier for me," he said. "One of the best years of my life was playing football for my dad at Gavilan Junior College. Having to go to Canada, having to work my way back later to the NFL, it made me appreciate things that much more.

"I think when you talk to people who know me today, I believe they would say I'm a very down-to-earth, very genuine, very humble person. I think that having the path, the journey, the road that I went through made me truly appreciate life in general. I appreciate the fact that I had to go out there and work for it and continue to prove to people that I deserve it, and when I got the shot, the chance, I showed that I was worth it."

<i>Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the "Inside the 49ers" blog for the Press Democrat's website. You can reach him at grantcohn@gmail.com.</i>