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Murphy: Now NFL stars, pair of Gainesville High grads gearing up to go against one another
Houston quarterback Deshaun Watson will see his former Red Elephants teammate A.J. Johnson across the field for the Denver Broncos on Dec. 8
Deshaun
Houston Texans quarterback and Gainesville High graduate Deshaun Watson weaves between Tennessee Titans defenders for a touchdown Sunday in Houston.

The chatter between Deshaun Watson and AJ Johnson will no doubt be spirited when the two Gainesville High grads, whose heralded prep careers for the Red Elephants overlapped in 2010, finally face one another Sunday on an NFL field. 

Watson, the do-it-all, third-year quarterback for the Texans, will be dodging the long reach of the ferocious second-year Broncos linebacker. 

With both immensely talented players, it’s inevitable that it will more than once during the course of the game turn into a foot race between these two former Red Elephants at NRG Stadium in Houston.

In his third season at the helm of the Houston offense, Watson has continually proved he’s next to impossible to put on the ground with his precise passes, fast feet and the way he can contort around defenders. 

And Johnson, who now goes by his full name Alexander, has brought a new energy to the Broncos defense from the middle linebacker spot since he made his first start in Week 5 this season, notably intercepting a Phillip Rivers pass in the end zone that day against the Los Angeles Chargers. 

Watson and Johnson — the two best high school football players to come out of Hall County since the turn of the century — have both been destined for greatness. Boisterous on the field, both share the trait of being consistently humble and affable stars off the field.

NFL fans have time and time again seen Watson make breathtaking plays that repeatedly create an internet sensation since he burst on the scene for Houston as the national championship winning quarterback from Clemson and first-round draft pick in a stocked 2017 draft at his position. Just one day ago, Watson threw for three scores and caught another touchdown (the first NFL quarterback in 42 years to match that feat) in a prime time win Sunday night against one of his childhood idols, Tom Brady, and the New England Patriots. 

Watson is almost a lock to make the Pro Bowl, not just for his right arm that has thrown for 3,133 yards through 12 games, but also the way he bends, twists and shakes off tackles from the biggest and strongest defenders in the league. His agility is truly a sight to see.

It will be interesting to see how the level of familiarity with the opponent will energize the 27-year-old Johnson, who entered the league as a free agent in 2018. These two have never played in a game against one another, even though their two clubs played against each other last season, the Texans winning 19-17.

Their college careers also never crossed paths. Johnson played from 2011-2014 for Tennessee, while Watson was a two-time Heisman finalist during his career at Clemson from 2014-2016.

With 70 combined solo and assisted tackles in 2019, Johnson has drawn league-wide attention for his quickness to the ball and his ensuing stance after the tackle where he imitates a dinosaur beside the ball carrier. He’s already gone over 10 tackles in a game twice this season through eight games as a starter in the middle of Denver’s defense.

The two former Red Elephants will likely be taking time the rest of this week for friendly banter back and forth. Life has got to be busy as a professional football player during the season, but never too full for a little good-spirited conversation between the linebacker and quarterback who he will have his eyes locked on all afternoon. 

The time they get to come home and visit is likely limited these days. However, they’ll never forget those days playing together when Johnson was a senior and one of the top players in the state, while Watson was a wiry freshman QB with all the potential in the world. 

As a freshman, Watson was thrown into the fire immediately, starting his first high school game on a blistering-hot August evening at top-ranked Buford. After losing the opener, the Red Elephants regrouped and won nine straight to wrap up the regular season, including the Region 7-3A championship against White County on a chilly November night that included some fourth-quarter snow in Cleveland. 

Technically, Watson shared snaps that season with Johnson. Red Elephants coach Bruce Miller stuck Johnson in the backfield and would let him run the ball from a direct snap, simply because few people were brave enough to try and bring down the 235-pound defender.

The first time Johnson got in at running back was Week 2 of the 2010 season, rushing nine times for 76 yards and a touchdown in the regular-season win against White County. The following week, Johnson topped 100 yards against North Hall, in addition to recording double-digit tackles from his primary perch at linebacker. 

After Johnson had graduated in 2011, Watson flourished the next three seasons and quickly became one of the nation’s top quarterback prospects. Leading Gainesville to the 2012 state championship, the only player Watson shared snaps with the next two seasons at quarterback was the scrappy Mikey Gonzalez, which came in mop-up duty. 

Watson and Johnson have always been in a league by themselves. Both were elite in the prep ranks, then emerged as leaders with Power 5 college programs. Now, they get to finally battle against one another — which is in the NFL. 

It should be fun for everyone to see who looks best. It’s bragging rights they’ll talk about for some time to come.


Bill Murphy is sports editor of The Times. He can be reached at bmurphy@gainesvilletimes.com

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