By LARRY HENRY JR.
South Jersey Glory Days Correspondent
Bryan Johnson has been part of some special times at Woodbury High, and now — with a major opportunity to end his high school football career on a high note — the senior quarterback is excited for what’s in front of him.
Johnson has enjoyed a sensational 2022 season with the Thundering Herd, helping Anthony Reagan Sr.’s squad advance to this weekend’s NJSIAA Group 1 state semifinal vs. South Jersey rival Salem, winner of the Central Jersey Group 1 sectional. The 17-year-old played a key role in the Thundering Herd’s 2021 campaign, one that featured a sectional title and a 12-1 record before an eventual defeat to Salem in what last year was referred to as the Regional Championship. This is the first year teams in New Jersey get to play all the way through to an overall state championship. Either Salem or Woodbury will take on the winner of the North Jersey semifinal that features Mountain Lakes vs. Weequahic.
Salem edged Woodbury, 21-20, during the regular season, handing the Herd one of just two losses and setting the stage for what should be another classic between two of South Jersey’s best teams.
Johnson said he knows the talent that Salem possesses, but is confident Woodbury can exact revenge Saturday at Cherokee High (10:30 a.m., Salem is the home team).
“We did fall short against them last year, but we’re just gonna work hard this week and hopefully get the outcome we want,” Johnson said. “It helps that we played them this season and have some familiarity with what they do well and what they don’t do well.
“It’s up to us to take advantage of our opportunity and try and keep this season alive for another two weeks.”
Johnson transferred to Woodbury from Kingsway during his Sophomore year and since then has made the starting quarterback job his. After throwing for 2,415 yards and 21 touchdowns during his junior season in 2021, Johnson used many hours of preparation to strengthen his game, cutting back on the turnovers and helping Woodbury remain one of the most dynamic offenses in South Jersey.
Last season, he threw 12 interceptions, but this year has shaved that all the way down to just two. Johnson heads into Saturday’s showdown with 2,011 passing yards and 27 total touchdowns. He’s registered 200 passing yards or more in four of his starts this season while also recording two touchdowns or more in nine of his 11 appearances.
Johnson’s commitment to ball security has certainly helped Woodbury overcome some adversity during the middle of the season and find its groove during playoff wins over Penns Grove, Shore and Maple Shade.
“Being at Woodbury has been a calm and comfortable experience for me,” said Johnson, who’s brother, Jayden, is a junior and one of his top targets. “When I got here, there were some new coaches that came onto the staff and I think that helped me, for sure.
“Having the opportunity to be a starting quarterback for a great program like Woodbury meant I needed to continue working hard in practice and on my own to be the best version of myself I could be,” he added. “I think ball security is key for any quarterback and it was something I wanted to improve during the summer. The hard work is paying off now.”
Johnson has also reaped the reward of having a versatile group of playmakers in his offense, with senior wide receiver JaBron Solomon and Jayden Johnson both excelling in 2022. Solomon and Johnson both have recorded more than 700 receiving yards apiece, with Solomon’s 12 touchdowns among the highest in South Jersey.
Freshman wideout Ibn Muhammad (252 yards, 4 touchdowns) and tailback Anthony Reagan Jr. (834 rushing yards, 13 touchdowns) have also been key to Woodbury’s offensive attack, which is averaging better than 31 points per game. Johnson credits his teammates and coach Reagan for helping him improve his game and get Woodbury back among the elite teams in South Jersey.
“JaBron and I have been putting it all together since eighth grade, so I know I can trust him with some important catches,” Johnson said. “My brother Jayden and I have been playing since we were 5, 6 years old, so I can count on him. We have some outstanding freshmen as well to take the pressure off the upperclassmen. Having Anthony Reagan back from injury (ACL) last season has also been important for us, so it’s been a team effort.”
“Coach Reagan is one of the best coaches that I’ve ever worked with,” Johnson added. “He motivates us every day and truly believes in everything we do. He wants to help us on the field, but also in life, and that is truly important.”
The Herd have overcome a tough schedule in 2022 to get to where they are in the State playoffs. Seven of their nine opponents had winning records, with West Deptford posting a .500 winning percentage and Penns Grove reaching the playoffs despite a 3-7 record.
Woodbury’s only two losses came against Haddonfield (28-6 on Sept. 23) and Salem (21-20 on Oct. 22), both of whom have been among the South Jersey elite for several seasons now. The grueling schedule for Woodbury has not only helped keep the competition level high for the players, but also give Johnson plenty of different defensive formations and schemes to play against.
“I think our schedule has been tough, but it’s only made us stronger and prepared us for the playoffs,” Johnson said. “Every week we were playing a different team that was likely going to be in the playoffs — Haddonfield, West Deptford, Paulsboro, Salem — those aren’t easy games. It’s forced us to be ready for anything and I think we have risen to the challenge so far.”
Johnson’s high school career has two guaranteed games left with a possible third left hanging in the balance. Saturday’s playoff showdown with Salem and a Thanksgiving eve contest vs. rival Gateway are definites for Johnson while advancement past the Rams this weekend will give Woodbury the chance to play for a state championship in early December.
Johnson isn’t overlooking the strong test that Salem (8-4) poses for 48 minutes, but admits a fast start could make the world of difference in snapping the Herd’s three-game losing streak in the series.
“We’ve got to come off fast,” Johnson said. “We have to avoid a slow start and be ready to get after them and score points. I think if we stay together as a team and everything clicks like it has been for most of the season, we will have a good chance to win this game.”
Larry Henry Jr. covers Burlington, Camden and Gloucester county for South Jersey Glory Days. Follow him on Twitter @lhenry019.