8:28 PM EST, November 27, 2012
— He walked in as a walk-on, he'll walk out as a walk-on. Johnny McEntee started 12 games at quarterback for the UConn football team. He finished the only road victory over a Top 25 opponent in program history.
Over five seasons, he also never got a dime of scholarship money.
While fans, frustrated with McEntee's play in 2011, and columnists, snarky in their assessments, would undoubtedly argue that it was a sound financial allocation by State U., it also was impossible last weekend not to feel good for the kid from Southern California.
McEntee may have first gained attention with a trick-shot video that went viral, featuring him throwing footballs into a garbage can from 40 yards. Yet as he walked up the stairs and toward the team bus last Saturday in Louisville, some of his teammates good-naturedly chanting, "Johnny Football," McEntee will be remembered for not throwing his college career in the garbage can or becoming a viral locker-room infection. There are worse clubhouse diseases in sports than a back-biting, backup quarterback, but offhand, I can't think of one.
"He could have quit the team, not come back, been a distraction in the locker room," senior captain Nick Williams said. "He wasn't any of those things. He just kept showing up for practice. He kept on knowing the game plan, knowing the plays.
"For him to go into that situation at Louisville, in the 11th game of the season, to get an opportunity and win the game for us in overtime with that throw was just awesome. I was proud of him."
Williams' words of praise for McEntee were echoed Tuesday among the UConn seniors preparing for their last regular season game — the last of their career if they lose to Cincinnati. McEntee, 22, has his entire extended family, at least 15 people, coming Saturday to Rentschler Field for Senior Day. Given Chandler Whitmer's improving day-to-day status after he was knocked goofy late in UConn's 23-20 triple overtime victory over Louisville, McEntee doesn't know if he'll even play again.
He does know this much.
"I'll be ready," McEntee said.
He was ready in Louisville after Preston Brown flattened Whitmer in the fourth quarter. He had no choice.
"A few of us were sitting on the bench warmers, enjoying the game," McEntee said. "Two minutes later, I was in. You're just kind of thrown in the fire. It's actually a good thing. If they gave me time to think about it, I might have been a little more nervous."
With McEntee having not played since throwing two passes in the opening-game rout against UMass, you had to wonder if Paul Pasqualoni would use wildcat Scott McCummings in that tense situation. No, Pasqualoni said, McEntee has gotten the snaps as the No. 2 in normal offensive reps and he stayed the course.
"I don't think anybody really blinked in regards to putting Johnny in the game," Pasqualoni said. "He works every day impressively. He knows the game plan inside out. In my six years in the NFL the backup quarterback gets a very, very, very limited number of reps during the course of the week. Johnny gets more reps.
"My point is they're still responsible for knowing the game plan inside out. They've got to go in and win the game. That's what Johnny did."
Of course, McEntee also opened with five incompletions.
"A little rusty," he said.
It would be his two completions in double overtime, however, that would make all the difference. He dumped off a pass to Lyle McCombs for a 17-yard gain down to the Louisville 4. From there, McEntee checked off Michael Smith and found Shakim Phillips heading for the right corner along the back of the end zone.
"Lyle put some pressure on them to stop the run, so we ran a quick play-action," McEntee said. "It was man [defense], so there was a safety where Smitty was in addition to the guy covering him. I came off that really quick. Shak ran a great route, got the guy to bite inside, got outside and was pretty open."
After Blidi Wreh-Wilson picked off Teddy Bridgewater's pass in the end zone and Chad Christen had kicked the winning field goal, there was a jubilant scene not seen among UConn players since the 2010 season.
"I'm so happy I was a part of it," McEntee said, "and that my dad was there to see it."
"That's a memory this team and Johnny McEntee will have forever," Pasqualoni said. "They might forget their wives' birthday. But they'll never forget that win in Louisville."
Nor, McEntee says, will he be quick to forget the season-ending loss at Cincinnati in 2011. The first quarter was a disaster. In one of those touch football plays in the sandlot where the big kid yanks the ball out of the little kid's hands, Walter Stewart did that in the end zone to McEntee. Drew Frey then had a 15-yard interception return. It was 28-6 in no time and fixing to be an embarrassment. McEntee bounced back, threw two fourth-quarter touchdowns before UConn eventually fell 35-28 in a tense finish.
"All I was thinking was, 'What I wouldn't give for an extra five minutes,'" McEntee said. "But the beginning of the game was awful. It still keeps me up at night."
"For us to be 5-6 again, going against Cincinnati, a chance to make a bowl, it's pretty crazy."
He also knows unless Whitmer has a setback, that game last year in Cincinnati would be his last start. McEntee said he has counted four or five times this season when he thought "Oh, my God," after Whitmer got crushed.
"I don't know if he has gotten a concussion or not but he's hung in there," McEntee said. "It says a lot about him. I've had only one 'real' concussion in high school. It was halfway through the game and the last thing I remember was the pep rally before it."
A lot of guys in McEntee's position would have sulked. A lot of guys would have taken their sociology degree and moved on. McEntee signed up for a freshman-level political science course this fall and kept showing up for practice.
"Johnny has handled everything terrifically," Pasqualoni said. "Johnny has not been anything but a team guy since day one."
He threw 335 passes last season. He threw 12 touchdowns, eight interceptions. He also was foot slow in the pocket and it grew obvious that UConn needed to move on. Yet it also should be obvious to us now that it was Cody Endres' dismissal from UConn that left the program with only young and untested quarterbacks.
"I did mess up a lot last year," McEntee said. "I didn't deserve to be the starter this year. I knew that. It was tough [not playing] at first. Halfway through the season, I was like, 'Let's just have a good time. In a few months, I'll probably be working in the mail room somewhere.
"I just wanted to finish this season with the seniors I came in with, and all these guys who have given so much. I was just glad I was able to do something to contribute to the team. I wouldn't have traded this for anything."
Copyright © 2013, The Hartford Courant