At 6 foot, 175 pounds, Pulaski County senior Jake Johnson doesn’t cut a very imposing figure as a wide receiver on the football field — right up until the moment the ball is snapped.
The state’s all-time receptions leader made plays all over the field Friday night as the visiting Maroons overcame a 21-14 halftime deficit and capitalized on Henry Clay’s third quarter implosion to win 40-21.
“The biggest thing that I’m proud of out of our team is that we didn’t get down when we got behind at halftime,” Pulaski Coach John Hines said. “We didn’t play well in the first half. They made some big plays and jumped up and got a lead on us, and we were able to come out in the second half and just play like we could play.”
Johnson had eight catches for 100 yards and two touchdowns. The yardage unofficially moves him to fourth on state’s all-time yardage list (4,444), past Trinity’s James Quick (4,437), whose all-time receiving mark Johnson has already eclipsed (322). Johnson sits sixth on the all-time TD reception list with 51. That’s within one of fifth place and two of fourth. The record is 69.
“It (the TD record) means a lot … a lot of people asked me about it and (are) wanting me to get that record in the community. But in the middle of the game, I’m not really thinking about it.” Johnson said. “I’m just going out there playing my game and doing what I do best.”
That includes playing defense. A few plays after taking a hard hit on an out pattern that saw the trainers come out to attend to him, Johnson was back at safety on the other side of the ball in the second quarter. With Henry Clay at midfield, Johnson tracked down Montaveon Bean’s long pass up the sideline and intercepted it on the Maroons’ 15 yard line.
Late in the third quarter with Henry Clay down 33-21 and threatening to get back into the game with a third and goal on the 5 yard line, Johnson swatted down a pass intended for Michael McMullen. The Blue Devils had to settle for a field goal try that missed wide right. Henry Clay never threatened again.
“He’s a special player, he really is,” Hines said. “What you saw tonight, we see every day in practice for four years. … He’s a great kid on top of that. He’s got great character. He’s a great leader on our team. He’s a hustler in practice. He’s the first one there and the last one to leave — all those things that coaches love — he’s every bit of it.”
That’s not to say everything went perfect. Johnson muffed a punt in the first quarter that set up the Blue Devils on the Pulaski 25. Two plays later, Bean scrambled around and hit Zac Berezowitz for a 25 yard TD to tie the game at 7-7.
A few series later, Pulaski answered with the first of Johnson’s TD catches, this one a 28 yarder with 8:44 to go in the half.
Henry Clay held after Johnson’s interception and benefited from an eight-yard punt that gave them the ball on the Maroons’ 26 yard line. A 16-yard Demarcus Tyler reception set up Berezowitz’ three-yard plunge to tie the game at 14-14.
Though it looked like Henry Clay might settle for a tie at half, Bean launched a 58-yard bomb to a wide open Tyler to take a 21-14 lead with 31 seconds left in the second quarter.
But the celebration was short-lived. Pulaski received the ball to start the second half and marched right up the field, culminating in a Rickey Maxey four-yard dive behind the biggest players Pulaski could put on the line in a fourth and goal from the four yard line.
On Henry Clay’s first possession of the second half, a 3rd and 12 snap sailed passed Bean and was recovered by Pulaski’s Jackson Mobley on Henry Clay’s 3. Pulaski quarterback Matt Hendricks went right at Johnson on the next play in the corner of the endzone to put the Maroons up 27-21. A two-point conversion try failed.
On Henry Clay’s next possession, an intentional grounding call angered the Henry Clay sideline and drew 2 unsporstmanlike conduct penalties and an ejection of one of the coaches. The Blue Devils were forced to punt on fourth and 34 from their own 11.
Pulaski responded with a six-play drive finished off by a pass in the flat to Jaylon Conwell who took it in four yards for his second touchdown of the game. The score was 33-21 Maroons after another failed two-point conversion.
Hendricks, originally listed on the roster at tight end, has been settling in at quarterback since the injury to sophomore Wiley Cain in the team’s first game. And when opponents play man-to-man on the Maroons’ Mr. Football candidate, it makes things a lot easier.
“If anybody’s in man, I’m going to try to throw it to number 2,” said Hendricks, who tossed four TDs total. “I don’t think there is any corner in the state that can guard Jake.”