All offseason the buzz around sophomore quarterback Max Johnson was his composure, understanding of the offense and command under center. It was something he handled very well as a true freshman being thrown into the Swamp against Florida and back home in Death Valley against Ole Miss to close the season.
He earned the first reps in spring camp and after the transfer of TJ Finley and pre camp injury to Myles Brennan, the opportunity to be LSU's full time starter arose quicker than initially expected. But as the 2021 season opener against UCLA wore on, the protection became an issue and clearly started to rattle the sophomore a bit.
Johnson missed a couple of quick throws, one to Trey Palmer in the middle of the field that would've likely been a 70-yard touchdown. But he was also consistently under pressure, forced out of the pocket and to deliver throws on the run.
"What I think I did well was stepping up and trying to make plays when they were not there," Johnson said. "Trying to find people when they were covered or when people are in my face. I think I need to do a better job of moving around, getting behind blockers instead of drifting backwards."
There surely needs to be improvement from the sophomore. Coach Ed Orgeron described the performance as "hot and cold," putting an emphasis on Johnson making better decisions in pressure situations. But there's also a recognition that the offensive line must improve its protections and blocking schemes, particularly on run plays.
It's an area that Johnson said the team has devoted a lot of time to getting right this week in practice. Opening the running lanes and picking up the blitzes will keep defenses on their toes and give Johnson a little more time in the pocket to go through his reads.
"We've put a little bit into that this week. We're gonna spice it up a little bit and looking forward to running the ball," Johnson said. "I gotta send the protection to the blitzes and get it out quickly. I think coach Peetz did a good of calling routes to beat the blitzes but we have to be able to run the ball into and way from the blitzes and throw it away from the blitzes as well."
It won't be easy work as Johnson will likely be dealing with plenty of substitutions as tackles Austin Deculus and Cam Wire will both be out this week. Communication from Johnson to the big men up front will be pivotal. Building good habits and chemistry is what will come in handy two weeks from now when conference play begins.
"He was really good at times. At times, he's got to get better, but again, it's not his first start, but his first time he's the man," Orgeron said. "He's the quarterback and we're going to give him time to get better, but he needs to improve."