Missoula, MT (SportsNetwork.com) - He often wears a different-colored jersey to signify he's a University of Montana quarterback, so it's hands off with Jordan Johnson during a practice when there's any threat of a play bringing on injury.
"J.J.," though, stands out the most even when he wears the same maroon and white colors adorned by his Montana teammates. Wherever he goes to direct the Grizzlies' offense, he is the center of attention, his number 10 basically magnified under a microscope's bright light.
He could do nothing for the Grizzlies a year ago while facing a charge of rape and under suspension during the team's first losing season in 27 years. Since being acquitted during a trial this past offseason, Johnson was welcomed back to the safety of the Montana pocket, and he's putting his career back together while the Grizzlies are doing the same as a program.
Each clearly makes the other better, and their successful results together have a rabid Montana fan base feeling re-energized during a calmer, more traditional type of season.
Back in the national polls all season, the 10th-ranked Grizzlies will play their biggest game to date on Saturday, hosting Big Sky Conference rival and No. 3 Eastern Washington in a showdown at sold-out Washington-Grizzly Stadium.
Having already guided Montana (6-1, 3-1) to one more win than during his season in exile, Johnson has thrown for 18 touchdowns with only one interception while compiling a 170.9 pass efficiency rating that ranks fifth in the FCS, though behind Eastern Washington's electric sophomore Vernon Adams. The dual-threat Johnson, a redshirt junior from Oregon, generally runs the Grizzlies' brute offense with great decision making, as he did two years ago in their run to the FCS national semifinals.
"I think we've kind of succeeded almost as much as we wanted to before the season," Johnson said Friday afternoon after his team's walk-through for the game. "We're just focused on getting better every day, and I think we've done that. Now we're really excited to play against a really, really good team on Saturday."
Montana, one of the Big Sky's charter members 50 years ago, had long been the definition of FCS football dominance, having won 12 straight conference titles from 1998-2009 as well as 18 overall and a pair of national championships in 1995 and 2001. But the Grizzlies' world was rocked in recent years, much through their own fault and some would say an arrogance built over time as they rose up the college football mountain.
They have missed the FCS playoffs in two of the last three seasons, including the stunning 5-6 record last year, and they saw their playoff success in 2011 erased by NCAA sanctions. So their program has slowly been trying to get its swagger back.
Coaches, players, alumni and fans alike can taste the opportunity for national prominence again, and they are hopeful of a return to Big Sky success and then ... well, nobody wants to get ahead of himself. It's step by step during recovery.
"Our theme, it's on our poster, it's 'United'," Johnson said. "That's what we talk about, we are trying to be a family. And we have each other's backs no matter what the score is.
"Even when I was out suspended for that whole year, they were always behind me and supporting me. I can't thank them enough for all the support they gave me throughout that whole deal."
"Even when all that stuff was going on, there was no question that he was still one of our leaders," said Grizzlies All-America linebacker Jordan Tripp. "He's one of my best friends. He was always around, always supporting us, he was at every single game. He was one of the guys who stayed focused on what he could control and we all supported him. When you have somebody like that back, he's your field general and your focus on offense. He holds guys accountable, as well as everybody else does."
A win over Eastern Washington (5-2, 3-0) on Saturday is paramount for the Grizzlies to have a chance to win the conference title. Otherwise they will need plenty of help just to earn a share of the crown.
While EWU's Adams has drawn the most national attention in the Big Sky this season, Johnson has had just as much success in leading the Grizzlies, but in a more understated way. That may not be a bad thing as the Grizzlies, and perhaps no one more than Johnson, try to keep focus and avoid distractions.
The university has been taking the necessary steps to repair its image following some tumultuous years, which included much publicized arrests and court cases, like Johnson's.
In addition, there was a year and a half of investigations from various entities. The NCAA announced in July it had found the university and former head coach Robin Pflugrad had failed to monitor the football program in 2010 and '11, allowing boosters to provide benefits to players, including bail money and free legal representation for two athletes (former cornerback Trumaine Johnson and backup quarterback Gerald Kemp) as well as such player perks as free meals, clothing, lodging and transportation.
During the troubles, enrollment and donations dropped, and bad publicity and scrutiny rose. But UM has changed some of the leaders at the university, expanded its compliance department and mandated there no longer be shortcuts.
UM self-imposed sanctions which were accepted by the NCAA: a three-year probationary period, the loss of four scholarships in each of the 2014, '15 and '16 seasons, and the vacating of five wins in the 2011 season in which the two ineligible players - Trumaine Johnson and Kemp - participated.
Yet all the negativity surrounding the Grizzlies football team has served to unify its members. The veteran coaching staff under Mick Delaney has been a calming force on the players, and Jordan Johnson has been embraced with support from many within the program.
"But they do realize they are under a microscope," said Mick Holien, the veteran radio voice of the team, "and it isn't as if, like any college student, there haven't been a slip or two. But when that occurs, it seems to have even brought the team even closer, and decisive actions by the coaching staff early on drew the line that any negative situation had repercussions, even as far as dismissal of a former defensive starter."
No. 10 knows more attention is on him than anybody else, and it isn't necessarily due to his play on the football field.
Although Johnson was acquitted of all charges, there is still the burden of the stigma of the case, and the need he feels to be on a straight path.
It's one Montana fans hope will have big victories as some of the landmarks.
"It made me realize it's just a game," Johnson says looking back, yet looking forward. "There's bigger things in life than football, and I think that's really helped me as a player."