Tuesday, November 22, 2005 | LT, a.k.a. Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson, is gaining popular support as an NFL MVP candidate.

Antonio Gates is punching a return trip ticket to the Pro Bowl, assuming the third-year tight end’s foot injury suffered in the Chargers’ 48-10 win Sunday over the Buffalo Bills doesn’t prove to be serious.

Quarterback Drew Brees is demonstrating his breakout season last year wasn’t a fluke.

And outside linebacker Shawne Merriman has won over fans with seven sacks, tops in the league among rookies after an ugly holdout, caused by his agent, turned public opinion against him in the summer.

But do you want to know the best football story of the year in San Diego?

You had to look a bit harder to find Josh Johnson, since he played away from the spotlight for the University of San Diego’s Division I-AA, non-scholarship program, but once you sat down at Torero Stadium, you couldn’t miss him.

The USD sophomore quarterback played like a video game figure superimposed on the screen as faster, smarter and bigger than other images. He moved around the pocket with poise, escaped the rush with nimble feet, ran with a sprinter’s stride when forced to scramble, and threw accurate passes on a line.

Johnson led the Toreros (11-1) to their first Pioneer Football League championship with a 47-40 win Saturday night over Morehead State before 2,883 fans at Torero Stadium. The PFL Offensive Player of the Year finished the season with school records for touchdown passes (36), yards passing (3,256), total offense (3,635) and completion percentage (70.7). He completed 261 of 371 passes with only eight interceptions.

Tomlinson, Gates and Brees are exciting stories this year, but their superlative play doesn’t surprise us.

San Diego State’s roster has promising sophomores such as quarterback Kevin O’Connell, running back Lynell Hamilton and linebacker Russell Allen who are going to win a lot of games the next two years, but the Aztecs aren’t a feel-good story this season without a bowl trip.

USD’s Johnson, however, literally sprouted out of nowhere. He grew from a 5-foot-11, 145-pounder the summer before his senior year at Oakland Tech in 2003 to a 6-foot-3, 180-pound sophomore in 2005 who may mature into an NFL draft pick by 2008.

It almost seemed unfair watching him play, as if the Toreros had dropped Texas quarterback Vince Young into their lineup.

If that sounds preposterous, you haven’t heard USD coach Jim Harbaugh, a man who played quarterback for 15 years in the NFL and coached quarterbacks for two more with the Oakland Raiders, sing Johnson’s praises.

Harbaugh says things like this:

– “If there was an SAT for playing quarterback, he would blow it away.”

– “If you watch Texas quarterback Vince Young, he runs similar to him. I’ve watched Vince Young on TV, and I’ve thought, ‘He runs like Josh Johnson to me.’ “

– “He’s got athletic ability, he’s got arm strength, he’s got great location with the ball and his best attribute is his mind. He’s a quick thinker.”

– “I wouldn’t just say he might get in an NFL camp (as a free agent); this is a draft-able guy someday.”

I know what you’re thinking: Don’t get carried away; his competition is players from Division I-AA, non-scholarship schools. Trust me; this kid is the real deal.

A touted athlete can be like a movie you’ve heard is great. Once you go see for yourself, it’s often a letdown. But watching Johnson for the first time, if anything, he was better than advertised.

Against Morehead State, he not only completed his first 10 passes before a receiver dropped what would have been an 11th straight completion, the first 11 passes he placed squarely in the receiver’s chest. He threw the ball short with touch and long on a line.

Not until Johnson’s 12th toss did he force a receiver to reach, and even then John Matthews got both hands on the ball above his shoulders for a 14-yard touchdown reception and 20-14 lead.

“Josh was hot; he was smoking hot,” Harbaugh said. “He’s got the gift and he brings it to every play, every practice and every conditioning workout.”

Johnson, who missed spring ball with a knee injury, making his performance this season all the more remarkable, finished the game completing 25 of 39 passes for 375 yards and five touchdowns.

But here’s the best part of the story: The kid is smart enough to figure out by now he’s better than some quarterbacks at major Division I-A schools, but he doesn’t care.

Johnson says things like this about his lack of height in high school leading him to USD:

“Everyone in my family is a late bloomer,” he said. “My dad didn’t grow until he was in college. But I’m glad I grew later. Otherwise I wouldn’t be here. Not everybody understands how good we have it here. We run a Division I-A-type program and we have NFL coaches. Every day is fun here.”

Johnson understands what he’s missing in big-time college football, because his best friend and teammate from high school is Marshawn Lynch, a running back Cal hopes to tout as a Heisman Trophy candidate next year. They talk almost daily.

“Oh, man, I don’t know what I’m going to tell him,” Johnson said after Saturday’s game. “We won a title together (at Oakland Tech) and it’s kind of the same feeling, but this one is more special. It was for our seniors. When I first got here, I saw how badly they wanted it. They had come close before and it was just killing them. Their attitude rubbed off on me and made me want it more.”

You gotta love this kid’s story.

Tom Shanahan has been writing about San Diego athletes at the professional, collegiate and high school levels for 27 years. He is the media coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions (

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