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CINDERELLA MAN

Johnny McEntee's journey from walk-on to starter

By Mac Cerullo
On December 7, 2011

  • The Idan Rachel Project

It's third down, nine yards to go and UConn is down 31-24 against Western Michigan with about five minutes left to play. The Huskies have possession at their own 21-yard line and need a first down to keep the critical drive alive.

Johnny McEntee takes the snap, drops back and searches for an open receiver. He throws a bullet down the middle, but a Western Michigan linebacker gets a hand on it and tips it up. The ball flutters in the air for a few gut-wrenching moments before falling into the hands of UConn receiver Kashif Moore for an 18-yard gain and the critical first down.

A couple of days later, sitting in a dull grey study room at the Burton Family Football complex, the quarterback from California said he got lucky on the play.

"But that's the way the ball bounces," McEntee said. "And sometimes it bounces your way."

The Huskies wound up losing 38-31, but McEntee finished the game with 300 yards passing and a career high four touchdowns in just his second game as the full-time starter.

Not bad for a walk on.

Considering where he began and how much he had to overcome to become UConn's starting quarterback, lucky could describe McEntee himself too. He was not highly recruited out of high school and UConn was the only Division I program that offered him a chance, and they did so as a preferred walk-on. Once on the team, he found himself buried in the depth chart taking snaps with the scout team with seemingly no chance to move up in the ranks.

But then head coach Paul Pasqualoni took over after Randy Edsall left for Maryland, and he opened up the quarterback competition, giving McEntee a realistic chance of becoming the starter for the first time. Over the next few months he battled three scholarship players for the job. In the end, he came out on top.

It's unlikely there's another starting quarterback anywhere in Division I who's had a journey quite like McEntee has. To be sure, his story is still a work in progress. His performance as the starter has been inconsistent, and with several younger quarterbacks waiting in the wings, many fans question whether he should remain the starter.

But for now, McEntee is relishing his opportunity.

"This is the only place that really gave me a chance to play football," McEntee said. "I always had a dream of playing Division I football. I had to go where the opportunity was."

And as he said, sometimes the ball bounces one's way.

Straight Outta Servite

Johnny McEntee grew up in Fullerton, Calif., roughly 3,000 miles away from Storrs, where he attended Servite High School.

"He's a California kid in every sense of the word," said junior wide receiver Nick Williams, who is also McEntee's roommate. "He's not one of those intense, in your face kind of guys, he's just kind of goes with the flow, calls out the play and doesn't really add any ad libs. He's just a regular, calm and relaxed guy in the huddle."

Running back D.J. Shoemate, who was teammates with McEntee at Servite, used similar words to describe him in the huddle, adding that he had a certain vibe about him, both on and off the field, that made people want to follow him.

"Johnny was well liked in high school," Shoemate said. "He had a lot of friends, he had a lot of people that wanted to be around him."

Shoemate said that McEntee had a way of bringing people together and making mundane things like going bowling an event. He also talked about how he and McEntee used to throw toilet paper at houses and trees back in high school, and about how McEntee always used to give himself away because he'd use really nice, quilted paper.

"He couldn't buy the cheap stuff," Shoemate said. "He used to give it away with that."

After graduation, the pair went their separate ways. Shoemate was a highly regarded, four-star prospect who earned a scholarship to USC. However, McEntee was not as popular with scouts as he was with his peers. Since he had no scholarship offers, he wound up looking into Curry College, a small Division III school in Milton, Mass.

"I saw that place, and like, the coach was nice but it was Division III," McEntee said. "I had bigger dreams."

Michael Cerullo, a program aide in the UConn football program who was a former assistant coach at Curry, said the difference between UConn and Curry football as like night and day.

"[At UConn] you have 10 full time coaches, two graduate assistants, next year there are going to be four graduate assistants and program aides and everybody else as a support system," Cerullo said. "And at Curry College you had the head coach who was a full time employee, two coordinators who were full time, and everyone else who was either a volunteer or a stipend coach."

As luck would have it, McEntee got a call from a UConn coach while he was visiting Curry asking if he wanted to visit. He made the trip down I-84, liked what he saw, and was offered a spot on the team as a walk-on.

In the summer of 2008, McEntee became a Husky. He redshirted his freshman year, but for the next three years under former head coach Randy Edsall, he toiled in obscurity taking reps with the scout team. But one cold, wintry day, McEntee's life would change forever.

A fun little video

The trick shot video begins with a student reading a football booklet in a Burton Family Football Complex meeting room, when the camera pans back and reveals McEntee throwing a football, knocking the booklet out of his hand.

"What's up? This is Johnny McEntee representing UConn football," McEntee says to the camera in the next frame. What follows is an incredible array of trick throws, including one where he throws a football into a trashcan from over 50 yards away, several where he hits live receivers while blindfolded, one where he "skeet shoots" plates in a parking lot, one where he hits the Dominos sign off the top of a moving van and numerous others where he makes baskets from all over Gampel Pavilion.

The trick shot video went viral immediately after it was uploaded to YouTube. The video was subsequently featured on numerous prominent programs and major websites, such as Yahoo! and Pardon The Interruption on ESPN.

"That was pretty crazy," McEntee said. "It was a fun video but it wasn't that cool, it's not worth 6 million views. Me and my friends were really excited seeing it go everywhere. My family back home was loving it so that was pretty fun."

McEntee said he got the idea after Caroline Doty of the women's basketball team made one, so he came up with all of the throws, got some friends together and filmed it in one day.

"Honestly, I did not think that this video would blow up anywhere near as huge as it got," said editor Kyle Campbell, a 7th-semester visual sciences major. "I predicted maybe about 50,000 views or so. Johnny told me at least 100,000-200,000."

Today, the video has more than 6.3 million views on YouTube.

"I bet him lunch at the Union that it would not get that big of a response," Campbell added. "Needless to say, I had to get him quite the lunch."

The response to the video generated a lot of attention in the locker room among his teammates, who were suddenly hearing his name all over the news.

"The locker room is a pretty close knit community I guess you could say. So we make fun of each other," Williams said. "When that came out, first everyone was real happy about it but then we gave him stuff about it for weeks."

"I wish he would've asked me to be in it, I definitely would have run the routes for him," Shoemate said. "I thought it was a phenomenal, a great little thing. It was very unique and it was very catchy and a lot of people ran with it and loved it."

After the video's release, many people jokingly suggested that McEntee should have gotten more playing time, since he could hit his receivers with his eyes closed while UConn's previous quarterbacks often struggled to complete passes.

But with former head coach Randy Edsall now at Maryland, former starting quarterback Zach Frazer graduating and no obvious starter going forward, the position was wide-open, and for the first time, McEntee had a genuine opportunity to earn the job.

From walk-on QB to starting QB

When the 2011 spring practices began, four quarterbacks sought the starting job: McEntee, sophomore Michael Box, redshirt freshman Scott McCummings and freshman Michael Nebrich. In August, Box fell out of the running and started taking snaps with the scout team, and ultimately he transferred to Division II Indiana University in Pennsylvania.

The remaining three kept battling, but when the season began, none of them had been given the job. McEntee started each game, but was rotated out for McCummings and Nebrich regularly. But on Sept. 24 at Buffalo, McEntee completed 12 of 21 passes with two touchdown passes and no interceptions in a 17-3 win. After the game, the coaching staff announced that he would be the starter for good.

According to quarterbacks coach Joe Moorhead, there wasn't any one moment where the coaches looked at each other and said "Yep, he's our guy." Rather, the decision to name McEntee the starter was a culmination of factors that all came together around the time of the Buffalo game.

"As it progressed we felt that based on our pro-style system that Johnny was the best combination of pocket-passer with accuracy," Moorhead said. "We evaluate every practice, and obviously the games played a huge part in that process as well, and it was a decision that was based off of both of those things."

Moorhead said that after Frazer graduated, the decision was made to explore every option available to find the right person for the new offensive system. As a result, McEntee started off at the same level as his three scholarship competitors, and from there the battled took off.

"It seemed like nobody could really separate themselves all spring, and even in the summer, it just kind of kept dragging on," McEntee said. "It seemed like the harder we each tried to separate ourselves, the more mistakes we kept making, but eventually it kind of worked itself out."

McEntee said that he thinks the fact that he is older and more experienced than his younger counterparts helped give him the edge. Both Moorhead and Williams said McEntee's biggest advantage wasn't his experience, but the fact that he was the best drop-back quarterback, which is essential in the type of pro style offense Pasqualoni runs.

Williams said that the coaching change helped McEntee's cause as well.

"Under Edsall he was buried in the depth chart. He was the walk-on quarterback who was taking reps with the scout team," Williams said. "[Pasqualoni] came in and they opened up the competition, and that gave him even ground. Whereas before, if the old staff was still here, he'd still be thought of as the walk-on quarterback who takes reps with the scout team [and] who has never really had the pressure of handling the mental side of actually being quarterback and going through the week and all the preparation."

Williams said that it's tough for a walk-on player to move up in the ranks because the program isn't as invested in them financially. The thinking is that "why would we go with him when we've invested more in this guy?" he said.

"When you think of his story and how he became the starter, it's pretty impressive," Williams said. "It's not very often you'll see a walk-on quarterback being the starter in a high-level program."

Shoemate agreed.

"You reap what you sow and Johnny's worked hard, his shot came and he took advantage and he's a success story," Shoemate said. "He's a Cinderella man. It's a great story. He's worked his butt off so I don't take anything away from him."

McEntee finished the season 5-7 as the starter with 2,110 yards passing, 12 touchdown passes and eight interceptions in 12 games. His best games came against Western Michigan, Buffalo and Rutgers, when he helped lead UConn to a decisive 40-22 win. His worst; the Syracuse game, in which he threw two interceptions, was sacked three times and missed receivers enough times to be booed by the crowd.

After the game, people speculated that McCummings should get the nod going forward. McCummings' playing time did increase, and even Nebrich began to see some game action in the season finale against Cincinnati. With highly touted recruit Casey Cochran coming in next year, McEntee's status as the starter is not guarenteed.

"At the level that we're at, every day is basically like an interview for your position," Williams said. "People say in other jobs that you have to perform like the other person is trying to steal your job and is breathing down your neck. But for us, the person behind you is literally breathing down your neck, he's standing right behind you and he takes the rep right after you take it."

Coach Moorhead wouldn't go into specifics about McEntee's status for next season because the coaching staff hasn't sat down to discuss it yet, but he did explain what it would take for McEntee to keep the job.

"He has to be the best guy to help us win games," Moorhead said. "As long as that continues to be the case, that's the guy who we're going to put at the quarterback position, the guy who gives us the best chance to win."

"I don't really think about it too much," McEntee said of the coming season. "I just do the best I can and I know the coaches will put the person out there who gives the team the best chance to win … Every day I just try to do the best I can, and that's what I'm going to continue to do."

Whatever the future holds, one thing is certain. Johnny McEntee has made it further than he was ever expected to, and despite the criticism he has received, his numbers stack up well against each of UConn's other quarterbacks since McEntee's arrival in 2008. In their best seasons, Zach Frazer threw for 1,461 yards with 10 touchdowns and nine interceptions, Cody Endres threw for 1,354 yards with six touchdowns and four interceptions and Tyler Lorenzen threw for 869 yards with three touchdowns and eight interceptions in 2008, McEntee's freshman year.

Whether he keeps his starting job or not, McEntee will graduate in the spring of 2013 with a degree in sociology having fulfilled his dream of becoming a Division I quarterback.

And after that, he said he plans on returning to California to start a new journey.

"I really have no idea [what I'm doing next]," McEntee said. "I'm definitely going back home if I get a chance, I have too much family in California, plus the weather, what else do I need? You know?" 


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