Just like his nickname, freshman Avery Johnson is shining in Kansas State's offense.
The dual-threat quarterback dubbed “Sunshine” matched a school record with five rushing touchdowns two weeks ago against Texas Tech, then had a TD pass and another impressive showing on the ground in a blowout win over TCU.
Johnson is among four freshmen quarterbacks in the Big 12 getting significant snaps this season. He and Iowa State's Rocco Becht have their teams in a second-place logjam with No. 7 Texas and Oklahoma State at 3-1, behind No. 6 Oklahoma (4-0).
Johnson's long, golden locks, his infectious personality and solid play earned him that nickname after Kip Pardue’s quarterback character in the 2000 film “Remember The Titans.” Johnson welcomes the moniker with a sheepish smile as well as his significant role in K-State's offense alongside veteran Will Howard.
“At the end of the day, I don’t really care how it gets done, as long as we come out with the win when the clocks hit zero,” Johnson said.
Coach Chris Klieman has made it clear that while Howard is Kansas State's unquestioned leader on offense, the speedy Johnson is a valuable addition. Kansas State has won two straight after starting the season 3-2 that included a loss at Oklahoma State.
“We’re going to need both of those guys as we still have a lot of football left,” Klieman said.
Johnson carried 16 times for 73 yards against TCU as Kansas State amassed 343 rushing yards. Johnson connected on long passes with fellow freshman Jayce Brown on separate drives to set up scores, and Brown later had his first career touchdown catch from Howard.
“That’s my brother," Johnson said. "We came in here at the same time. He’s a shy guy at first. Once he came out of his shell, we kind of got to bond on and off the field. Credit to him. He’s putting in all the work.”
Becht, a redshirt freshman who saw limited action in three games a year ago, was thrust into the starting role at Iowa State after incumbent Hunter Dekkers, who has not played this season, pleaded guilty to underage gambling in September. Following a 2-3 start, the Cyclones have consecutive wins over TCU and Cincinnati and are coming off a bye week.
“It’s just staying the course and staying consistent,” said Becht, whose father Anthony Becht, played 12 NFL seasons at tight end out of West Virginia. “We’ll be prepared and we’re ready for the competition that’s coming to us.”
Becht is averaging 209 passing yards per game and has thrown 12 TD passes along with five interceptions. He already has the second-most TD passes in a season for an Iowa State freshman and is on pace to exceed the freshman record for yards (2,250) and TDs (16) set by Brock Purdy in 2018.
“Rocco’s growing a lot for a redshirt freshman and a guy that’s seeing all these things for the first time,” Iowa State coach Matt Campbell said. “I think his maturity is showing. How his preparation (is), how he handles in-game adjustments, he’s really doing a great job for us.”
Big 12 youngsters are excelling in other positions, too. Three of them will be taking their talents to the Southeastern Conference next season.
Redshirt freshman wide receiver Nic Anderson of Oklahoma has eight receiving touchdowns, the most for a freshman in the Bowl Subdivision. Teammate Peyton Bowen, a freshman strong safety, has blocked two punts — one for a safety — and leads the Sooners with four pass breakups. Texas freshman linebacker Anthony Hill Jr. is tied for the team high with three sacks.
Texas Tech redshirt freshman linebacker Ben Roberts is fourth in the Big 12 with 66 tackles and has two forced fumbles. Oklahoma State redshirt freshman safety Cameron Epps had two interceptions earlier this month against Kansas State, returning one for a touchdown.
West Virginia redshirt freshman Hudson Clement had 177 receiving yards and three TDs in a breakout debut against FCS Duquesne last month, then had a 50-yard TD catch two weeks ago against Houston.
TCU quarterback Josh Hoover had quite the first start Oct. 14 after an injury to Chandler Morris, throwing for 439 yards and four TDs in a win over BYU. Coach Sonny Dykes said at the time that Hoover “set the bar pretty high” and that “it's going to be hard to replicate what he did.”
Dykes was right. Hoover, a redshirt freshman, was limited to 187 yards against Kansas State.
"It was a rough game across-the-board offensively,” Dykes said Saturday.
At Texas Tech, freshman Jake Strong was put in a difficult situation.
The Red Raiders' third quarterback this season, Strong made his debut Oct. 14 against Kansas State after Behren Morton was injured. Strong had a 54-yard run to set up his 8-yard TD pass that gave Texas Tech the lead. But he threw three interceptions late in the loss and had three more picks in his first start in a loss to BYU.
“It's tough. Whenever you turn the ball over, I know you're putting a lot of pressure on yourself," Texas Tech coach Joey McGuire said. "I thought he stayed pretty composed.”
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