While four Cal Poly quarterbacks were battling to be the starter, there was one more who wasn’t.
Kenny Johnston was always in the huddle but never in the mix as junior Vince Moraga, who’s since earned the starting nod, sophomore Air Force transfer Dano Graves, sophomore Chris Brown and redshirt freshman Tanner Trosin competed for the starting role.
Johnston, whose father Craig led the Mustangs to an NCAA Division II national championship in 1980 and whose two older brothers also played at Cal Poly, was designated as a career scout-team quarterback before spring drills kicked off the QB competition.
It’s a role Johnston has learned to embrace over the years. He practices against the first-team defense, helping improve its play by emulating the tendencies of Mustangs opponents.
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On game days, he shares the team’s successes from the sideline.
“It was hard knowing that I might not have a shot to play,” Johnston said, “but after that, I figured I can’t let it bring me down every day. I just have to make the team better.
“If I’m not having fun, there’s really no point in me being out here. I came to terms with this being my role, and this is what I’ve got to do.”
Like every scholarship player, Johnston joined the ranks of college football with hopes of becoming a starter.
He was not just a prep standout, but one of the all-time greats at Carmel High, where local media named the 2009 graduate the player of the decade.
With 516 completions for 8,162 yards and 93 touchdowns, Johnston is Monterey County’s all-time career passing leader and said he once held scholarship offers from Air Force, Montana and Idaho State. He took an official visit to San Diego State his senior year.
But there are only 22 starting positions on every team. Factor in special teams, substitutions and injuries, and around twice that many will play in a given game.
FCS teams are allowed 63 scholarships that can be split up 85 ways, and of the preseason 95-man roster, a maximum of 59 are allowed to travel for road games.
While many of those who don’t play during the season may be younger players who will take the field once they gain more seasoning, a segment of players on every college team will hardly, if ever, see the field after a full five-year collegiate career.
Some of those players might wash out, quit, transfer or drop out of school.
Others, like Johnston, will go to every practice, every meeting, every film session and every team function without the reward of playing on Saturdays.
And those players, though absent from the limelight, are as much a part of the lifeblood of the program, coaches say, as the All-Americans.
“It’s how you structure your team, from the bottom up,” Mustangs defensive assistant Pat Johnston said. “You try to develop a culture where the guys that don’t get all the glory are just as important. It’s something the team should embrace: The guy who comes out and busts their butt all the time.
“It’s a grind. Those guys come to practice every day knowing that there’s not a lot of light at the end of the tunnel, but they do it anyway, and it speaks volumes about their character.”
Kenny’s oldest brother, Pat Johnston was also primarily a scout-team quarterback for the Mustangs from 2005-07. After his playing days, he became an assistant coach, where he’s served for the past six seasons.
Another brother, Phil Johnston, was a linebacker for Cal Poly through the 2010 season.
Kenny, Pat said, had more promise as a signal-caller and a student than he did entering their father’s alma mater.
And Kenny Johnston competed in earnest for playing time in each of his first two seasons, Walsh said, initially settling in behind fellow freshmen Moraga and Duke DeLancellotti, who transferred to Santa Ana City College and is now a senior reserve at Texas State.
Recruited by former head coach Rich Ellerson, Johnston never got to play for that regime, which left when Ellerson took the head coaching job at Army in late 2008.
Then Walsh took over in early 2009, and Johnston, along with every other incoming Ellerson recruit whose scholarship Walsh honored, had to prove himself to a new coaching staff.
In the years that followed, Johnston fell below incoming players pursued by the current staff. He had frank discussions with his father about remaining in the program when he reached his ceiling.
“My third season,” Johnston said, “was the toughest because I still had three more seasons to say ‘I could do this.’ But then I wasn’t traveling. Last year, I noticed that Chris Brown was traveling with the team and Tanner was traveling with the team.
“But I knew I wasn’t going to quit on him, and I wasn’t going to quit on the team.”
Said Walsh: “As much as we talk about being a Mustang and doing things the Mustang Way, living your life the right way and being a good student, he’s good at all that, in spite of the fact that he hasn’t played a lot.
“He probably feels like deep down, he can do it. He’s never let that interfere with his daily performance, his attitude, his ability to help us win. He’s the ultimate team player.
“A lot of guys resent the fact that they don’t get an opportunity, and they become bad teammates, and they become bad for the program. Kenny has been an asset for the program.”
It doesn’t take much time at the practice field to see Johnston is a team leader. He’s vocal, instructing younger players where to go and when to increase their intensity.
During the tense trials of the four-way quarterback competition, Johnston provided moments of levity to help relieve the stress on the others.
And in a practice session last week, Johnston immediately inserted himself into a drill at receiver to help give the injury-depleted scout team some relief and keep the tempo at a brisk pace.
“He just jumped in,” senior linebacker Johnny Millard said, “and said, ‘What route do I run?’ He just stepped in to help the team, and I don’t think you can get much better than that.
“He has such a great attitude, and that’s contagious. People talk about how good our defense is and how good we can be, but he’s a huge part of that.”
Johnston was named the scout team player of the year in 2011, and he takes some ownership of the fact that Cal Poly had the third-best statistical defense in the Big Sky Conference last season and returns with designs on being one of the best in the country this year.
So far, Johnston’s time on the field is limited to a 13-play, 69-yard fourth-quarter touchdown drive in last year’s 70-14 win over Idaho State.
That drive was witnessed by his 89-year-old grandfather Glen, who sat near the 50-yard line for every home game until he died this past May.
Moments like those have become Johnston’s reward for the hard work. And he celebrates conference championships each of the past two seasons as much as the next guy.
“Even though I didn’t get to start, I still consider my college career a success,” Johnston said, “because we got two rings, and I’m going for a third.”