Sports

Quarterback-receiver duo helps key Johnson County’s success

WRIGHTSVILLE — The response seemed natural.

It was like they’ve answered the same question often.

D.J. Rozier looked at his childhood friend and smiled. He’d let him take it this time.

So Zack Walker, who is like a big brother in terms of closeness and because he’s significantly larger than Rozier, repeated the same line he has recited through the years when asked about his friend’s small stature.

“You can’t measure someone’s heart,” said Walker, a senior wide receiver at Johnson County about Rozier. “No scale for that. He’s all heart.”

Rozier, Johnson County’s strong-armed senior quarterback, stands about 5-foot-8. He’s a stocky, well-built athlete who makes up for his size disadvantage with strength and on-field leadership. He also makes up for it by posting monster statistics alongside his favorite receiver Walker.

Walker has caught around 130 passes from Rozier, a number only surpassed in Middle Georgia by FPD’s Colby Maddox and Alex Gainey, who connected 150 times, according to The Telegraph’s archives. All of the completions came out of the Trojans’ run-heavy wing-T formation.

The biggest reason for the duo’s success, Johnson County head coach Don Norton said, is because of the players’ tight-knit relationship and their uncanny feel for each other on the field. That bond has helped the Trojans win plenty of football games and provides hope around Wrightsville that the program made famous by Herschel Walker might be in store for a special year. The Trojans (3-0) travel to Portal on Friday, and they then have a showdown with perennial rival ECI on Sept. 24.

“They are special, special players,” said Norton, whose career as a head coach at Johnson County began with Rozier and Walker as freshmen. “They just have this relationship that has helped both grow and become great football players.”

Rozier and Walker first met in elementary school. They’ve been close friends since and became teammates shortly thereafter.

Norton remembers watching Rozier and Walker play as sixth graders. He knew then that Rozier would be a standout quarterback and Walker would make plays wherever he lined up.

“Some guys have ‘it,’ and (Rozier) has ‘it,’ ” Norton said. “(Walker) is just a great athlete who was going to make plays.”

Norton had a little help forecasting Rozier’s success.

Rozier is from the Idylwild neighborhood in Wrightsville, the part of town that has produced most of the great quarterbacks in school history.

“I don’t know what it is about that place, but they grow quarterbacks there,” Norton said.

That included Cordele Johnson, a four-year starter who led the Trojans to the Georgia Dome and the state semifinals as a senior. Johnson, who was even smaller at 5-6, also battled doubters about his size.

Rozier looked up to Johnson, who lived down the street and took notes. He watched the way Johnson led the team and carried himself around school.

“Cordele handled every situation on our team,” said Norton, who was a defensive coordinator during the run to the semifinals. “He was absolutely our leader. Everyone idolized him. I think (Rozier) probably followed his example.”

Walker, who has prototypical size for a wide receiver or cornerback at 6-1 and 180 pounds, was a shoo-in to start from the day he started high school.

His physically imposing style allowed him to get on the field at receiver and at defensive back, and he has started all 35 Johnson County games since. Norton trusted Walker’s athleticism so much that he drew the assignment of guarding former ECI star and current Georgia running back Washaun Ealey on passing plays. Walker elevated to intercept a pass over Ealey the same night the ECI running back broke the state touchdown record.

“You could say that’s one of my highlights,” Walker said with a smile.

Norton was so impressed with Rozier’s leadership skills that he thought he would throw the freshman, who already started at safety, into the starting quarterback role by midseason. The starting quarterback broke his collarbone in the second game, forcing Rozier into the starting role early.

“Any other guy, I’d have a problem starting at quarterback as a freshman,” Norton said. “Not D.J.. He’s different.”

Rozier said starting at quarterback was intimidating that first year.

“Every guy was bigger than me,” said Rozier, who laughed when reminded by Walker that he hasn’t grown much since.

The Trojans relied on the run that first year, and they reached the playoffs despite returning one skill position player who’d ever touched the ball in a varsity game.

Norton lost his top running back that year to graduation, and he knew the team would have to throw it more going forward to have success. He told Rozier and Walker to get to work in the offseason, because the passing game would be featured.

“They didn’t believe me,” said Norton, who believes the Trojans didn’t throw it more than 50 times that first season.

But Rozier and Walker still worked hard, perfecting passing routes and developing a sixth sense to know where each other was on the field. Rozier could read Walker’s body language and adjust his throws accordingly. Walker could sense when Rozier was in trouble and could change his route to help his quarterback.

Rozier passed for 1,312 yards and 20 touchdowns with only three touchdowns as a sophomore. Nine of those touchdowns went to Walker. The Trojans went 9-2, but lost in the first round to Schley County.

Another offseason came, and the quarterback and receiver continued to put in the work.

The Trojans passed it even more last season, and Rozier added more responsibility as a runner.

He passed for more than 1,700 yards and 19 touchdowns and added 919 yards and 17 touchdowns on the ground. Walker caught 72 of those passes for 1,172 yards and 14 touchdowns. All three are among the best single-season numbers in Middle Georgia history.

The Trojans, however, lost in a region playoff game to Calvary Day after going 8-1 in the regular season and missed the state playoffs.

“It was about as disappointing a loss as we’ve ever had,” Norton said. “It made me physically sick. I remind them about it every day.”

Both players said the season-ending loss has provided plenty of motivation for their senior season and helped carry them through tough offseason workouts.

Norton has given Rozier nearly complete autonomy over the offense. He can make play call changes in the huddle, and the quarterback and Walker will audible to another play a few times per game.

“They make the right decisions,” Norton said.

Rozier has passed for 378 yards and 10 touchdowns with one interception in three games. He has added 399 rushing yards and three touchdowns.

Rozier said he thinks of himself as a running back playing quarterback.

“He can do it all,” Walker said. “He’s a quarterback and a running back.”

Walker has caught 17 of Rozier’s 37 completions this year for 278 yards and five touchdowns.

The two have logged so many games together on the field that they’ve posted some pretty incredible career numbers.

Rozier has passed for 3,839 yards and 53 touchdowns while completing 59 percent of his passes. He has thrown 16 interceptions in 443 career attempts. He rushed for 1,859 yards and 33 touchdowns. His 86 career touchdowns coincidentally match Herschel Walker’s career mark.

Walker has caught 133 passes for 2,141 yards and 27 touchdowns. Johnson County is 25-8 with Rozier under center and Walker split out wide.

“We have a lot of fun playing together, and we help push each other,” Rozier said. “I trust him, and he trusts me.”

Walker’s 133 career catches give him an outside shot at Stan Rome’s GHSA record 209 career catches. Catching the former Valdosta standout might seem unlikely, but Walker caught 72 passes last year in only 10 games. If he kept up that pace and the Trojans won a few playoff games, Walker might have a shot.

“The biggest thing for us is winning football games,” Rozier said. “We’re having fun, and the stats are nice. But we want to keep winning.”

By the numbers

25-8 – Johnson County’s record with D.J. Rozier at quarterback and Zack Walker at receiver.

86 – The number of combined passing and rushing touchdowns for Rozier

72 – The number of catches for Walker as a junior

150 – The reported Middle Georgia record for quarterback-receiver completions held by FPD’s Colby Maddox and Alex Gainey

133 – Walker’s career catches

5,698 – Rozier’s career yards of total offense

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