The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The star who stayed: The refreshing tale of TCU’s Quentin Johnston

TCU wide receiver Quentin Johnston has 1,066 receiving yards this season despite missing time with an ankle injury. (LM Otero/AP)
7 min

LOS ANGELES — At this time last year, the current joke would have seemed like the sweetest compliment. Anyone suggesting then that TCU deserved championship odds as good as 200-1 would have been deemed a brazen optimist. Or a fool.

When Sonny Dykes took over as coach, he couldn’t envision mocking preseason skepticism and redirecting a crumbling football program to the national title game. He was too worried about losing the few impact players still on the team.

“When I came into the job, externally I was hearing, ‘Okay, these are four players that are really important to the program that you’ve got to get to stay here,’ ” Dykes said. “And three of the four left.”

But Quentin Johnston stayed.

That’s all that matters now. He stayed.

Mississippi poached running back Zach Evans and defensive end Khari Coleman. Dykes declined to give any hints about the other coveted player on that list, but second-team all-Big 12 edge rusher Ochaun Mathis transferred to Nebraska, and another promising defensive lineman, Earl Barquet Jr., left for Southern California. But Johnston, a 6-foot-4, 215-pound wide receiver with incredible burst and versatility for his size, could not be lured away.

Now he’s the most explosive offensive player on a team 60 minutes from completing a storybook championship run and a critical weapon for TCU as it tries to solve Georgia’s gifted defense. The junior, widely hailed as the best NFL draft-eligible wide receiver, is projected to be a first-round pick in April.

An ex-Navy lacrosse player is living ‘a crazy story’ with TCU football

Johnston wasn’t just loyal. He was smart. He came to respect Dykes quickly and sensed the possibilities of playing in the modified Air Raid offense that coordinator Garrett Riley conducts. He has 1,066 receiving yards and has averaged 18.1 yards per catch this season despite missing time with an ankle injury. If you saw his 76-yard catch and dash to the end zone against Michigan in the semifinal round, you saw a glimpse of his big-play electricity. He has done that all season for TCU, complementing the audacity of quarterback Max Duggan and adding elite skill to a balanced offense that leverages the run far better than a traditional Air Raid system does.

“Quentin makes my job pretty easy,” said Duggan, who finished second in Heisman Trophy voting. “I can just kind of close my eyes and throw it up to him, and he usually bails me out.”

Duggan and Johnston are among the most prominent holdovers in a program that relied heavily on transfers to transform from 5-7 to glory. But while the transfer portal fairy provided the golden carriage to rescue this Cinderella, the Horned Frogs couldn’t have gone on this run without showing the character that existed before Dykes replaced Gary Patterson. In more than two decades of building, Patterson created a standard that outlives his tenure. This rapid resurrection under Dykes is a testament to everything TCU football has become.

With a kiss from a (Horned) Frog, the CFP gets its first stunner

Dykes and his staff handled the chaos of change skillfully, and for all their losses to the portal, they won in the end by reshuffling better than every other school. But to do so, the coaches had to sell more than themselves. For Dykes, the key victory was earning Johnston’s trust.

“I think it was important not only for his talent, but I think it was also an endorsement from him,” Dykes said. “ … Everybody was looking for somebody to say, ‘Look, I’m jumping on the train.’ And Quentin did that for us. And I think it gave our staff some credibility because, when you take over in today’s era of football, there’s chaos. There’s a lot of guys looking to leave, and there’s people reaching out to them. … And you’re trying to get to know these guys. You’re trying to sell them on your vision for the program. And so it’s a complicated time.”

It wasn’t complicated for Johnston. The Temple, Tex., native never really considered leaving. Other coaches tried to convince him and his family. But as the son of military parents, he lives by a different code. In 2020, he arrived at TCU as a freshman, and through that difficult covid-19 year, he developed a deep love for his teammates and a stronger desire to pursue the full college experience.

“I not only fell in love with the football program but with the TCU community as a whole,” he said. “So I feel like there’s something that really kept me grounded and staying in this program.”

Dykes visited Johnston’s hometown to re-recruit the wide receiver. When he sat with the family, he was prepared to talk about name, image and likeness money. Instead, they focused on football and personal development. The parents liked Dykes’s offensive mind, leadership style and genteel vibe.

“We don’t want anything,” Quentin’s father, Carl, said at one point. “We want an opportunity.”

Look at what his son has done with that opportunity. Johnston continues to grow into his frame. Just five years ago, when he was about to be a high school junior, he wasn’t certain he would reach 6 feet. He idolized smaller wideouts. His favorites were DeSean Jackson, Tavon Austin and De’Anthony Thomas. To this day, he still loves catching a short pass and taking it to the house — the way he zipped past Michigan defenders — more than using his big body to leap over cornerbacks and catch long passes. He calls that “the deep-ball stuff,” and while he enjoys the fundamentals required and the excitement of those plays, he wants to be recognized as a technician who happens to be blessed with elite physical traits.

“Q is just a different cat out there than a lot of kids,” Duggan said. “ … He makes things look so easy, and he’s such an impactful player where he can change the game in one play. I mean, the dude is so powerful. He’s so big. He’s fast. He’s twitchy. He just causes so many issues for a lot of teams.”

Remembering TCU’s last national title, way back in 1939

He will need to bring his entire repertoire against Georgia. Every opponent experiences difficulty blocking Georgia up front, but if TCU can, there are opportunities to create explosive plays against the Bulldogs’ secondary. Even with future first-round pick Kelee Ringo at cornerback and all-American Chris Smith at strong safety, there are opportunities. In their past two games, the Bulldogs allowed 850 combined passing yards and seven total passing touchdowns against LSU in the SEC title game and Ohio State in the CFP semifinal. Dykes hopes TCU can run the ball well enough to keep Georgia honest, and if the Horned Frogs can stay out of bad down-and-distance situations, perhaps Duggan, Johnston and the rest of the receiving corps can take advantage of the only obvious blemish the Bulldogs’ defense has shown all season.

As the great one who stayed, Johnston already has made a loud statement. On Monday night, he’s not playing to show you how right he was. He’s doing it, as always, for the school he refused to leave behind. He and his teammates want this perfect ending badly.

“I mean, with every fiber of our being, we for sure do,” Johnston said. “We’ve been counted out for so long. … A lot of people don’t think the Big 12 has what it takes to have certain things. We’ve proved that. We have to come out, keep proving it.”

Of all the players who could have articulated the mission, his words carry maximum credibility.