The Baylor Bears are preparing to play their highest-profile game of the season under the direction of a third-team quarterback who has taken most of his practice snaps since August at receiver.
It hardly qualifies as the ideal way for the Bears (9-1, 6-1 Big 12), the No. 10 team in the College Football Playoff rankings, to maximize their opportunity to win Friday’s showdown against No. 18 TCU (9-2, 6-2) in Fort Worth.
But it’s the card that coach Art Briles began playing in Monday’s workout when sophomore Chris Johnson took first-team quarterback snaps with the Bears’ offense for the first time this season.
Johnson (6-foot-5, 235 pounds) came off the bench to throw for two touchdowns and run for another in relief of the injured Jarrett Stidham in last week’s 45-35 upset of No. 6 Oklahoma State.
The Bears’ victory knocked the Cowboys (10-1, 7-1) from the unbeaten ranks, tightened the Big 12 championship race and kept Baylor on the fringes of the CFP playoff picture with a climb likely in Tuesday’s updated rankings.
To continue climbing after Friday’s game against TCU (6:30 p.m., ESPN), Johnson will have to continue delivering in relief of Stidham, who Briles called “highly questionable” to play against the Horned Frogs because of a lower leg injury sustained against OSU.
Stidham, a freshman from Stephenville, moved into the starting lineup Nov. 5 after a season-ending injury to Seth Russell, who posted a 7-0 record as the team’s starter.
Now, the injury bug has shifted Johnson into the starting lineup for Friday’s matchup between the teams that shared last year’s Big 12 title.
Until late October, Johnson was taking all of his practice reps in the Bears’ receiver rotation. He returned to quarterback after Russell’s injury. Briles said Monday that the dual threat from Bryan is up to the task, as evidenced by his strong second half against OSU (138 passing yards, 42 rushing yards).
“Since he moved back to quarterback, he’s gotten really sharp,” Briles said. “He’s got a lot of energy and every intangible you could ever hope for. The playbook’s open, and we’re dialing up the same stuff that we were with Seth and Jarrett because he can deliver.”
Johnson said he’s comfortable in his new role and views this week as “an opportunity to get more in-sync” with the Bears’ starting receivers. He’ll probably be asked to do more as a runner than Stidham because it suits Johnson’s skill set and because Briles declared the Bears’ leading rusher, running back Shock Linwood (1,240 yards, 10 TDs), as “very questionable” for Friday because of knee and ankle ailments.
Johnson, a powerful runner, stressed that he would not allow the absence of a clear-cut backup quarterback on this week’s Baylor depth chart to deter him from fighting for extra yards as a rusher against TCU.
“I’ll be smart. But I’ll still play aggressive,” said Johnson, who averaged 7.0 yards per carry against OSU, including a 4-yard touchdown run to clinch the game with 2:10 remaining. “Situationally, when I need to get the first down, I’m going to get it. When I’m at the goal line, I will go get it. That’s just the mentality I have.”
That’s the mentality Briles wants, although an injury to Johnson (assuming Stidham can’t play) would mean leaning on an emergency quarterback. Briles did not offer names Monday but a pair of former high-school quarterbacks, receiver Corey Coleman and nickel back Travon Blanchard, said they would be willing to step in, if necessary, against TCU.
Johnson, who led the Bears to three touchdowns in six possessions against Oklahoma State, plans for the quarterback carousel to stop with him. He likes the idea of following in the footsteps of Cardale Jones, Ohio State’s third-team quarterback who led the Buckeyes to last year’s national title after becoming a November starter, and stressed that he never considered transferring once Stidham was named the backup during fall drills.
“I didn’t want to take the easy route and leave because that doesn’t always work out in your favor,” Johnson said. “Since I stepped on campus, I’ve been wanting to play. But you just have to wait your turn sometimes. That’s part of the game. I always believed my opportunity was going to come.”
Now, it’s here. Johnson will be charged with breathing life into the Bears’ flickering playoff hopes for a second consecutive week in Friday’s battle of banged-up teams. Offensive tackle Spencer Drango, a fifth-year senior, considers him a solid bet to make that happen.
“He’s a phenomenal athlete. We’ve had less athletic guys do really, really good things here,” Drango said. “He knows the offense really well and he has all the attributes.”
Now, he’s the guy in charge of Baylor’s playoff hopes and Big 12 title chances. Briles made it clear Monday that he considers Johnson capable of delivering on both quests despite minimal experience at the college level.
“We like the fact that it’s late in the season and we’re still in the hunts, with an ‘s,’ ” Briles said, stressing the dual goals. “That is a tribute to our players. Up to this point, we’re still standing pretty solid.”
The bigger question is where the Bears will be standing after Friday’s first career start by a backup quarterback who has spent most of this season practicing at receiver.