QB De’Andre Johnson’s winding path brings him to USFL

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New Jersey Generals quarterback De’Andre Johnson seized his moment last Sunday night.

With his team down 10-3 at halftime to the Philadelphia Stars, Generals head coach Mike Riley made the call to put Johnson under center for the second half.

Johnson and his running backs, Trey Williams and Darius Victor, proceeded to impose their will on the Stars with one run play after another. The Generals climbed back into contention and eventually, their rushing attack wore down the Stars.

It was Johnson’s four-yard touchdown run that sealed a 24-16 Generals win, moving them to 2-1 and first place in the USFL’s North Division.

The Generals racked up a stellar 265 rushing yards in the victory. Johnson chipped in 92 of those rushing yards, along with throwing for 130 more.

Through the opening weeks of the USFL season, Johnson – the dual threat – and Luis Perez – the traditional passer – have been used interchangeably to lead the Generals offense.

With the Generals’ emphasis on the run game and Johnson’s own role to play in that, he hasn’t had as many opportunities to show his passing skills (14/22 for 237 yards through three weeks).

But as he navigates working in a two-QB system while contributing primarily, for now, as a rusher, Johnson is simply focused on getting the job done.

“Regardless of whether you’re running the ball, throwing the ball – at the end of the day, being a quarterback is understanding the offense and moving the offense efficiently without turning the ball over,” Johnson told NBC Sports this week.

“That’s what I take pride in. Whatever plays Coach calls, I’ll try and execute it to the maximum of my ability. … If you’ve prepared the proper way – don’t get me wrong, going into each week, I know I’m gonna to, at some time, get some passing plays and stuff like that just based off how the game is going.

“But I still prepare the same way. I still go over every play that we have. Whether it’s running the ball, passing the ball, it’s just being ready for whatever Coach calls. At the end of the day, these games change and sometimes, you need to adapt. And right now, our running game is holding us down.”

Is that unit in for another big outing this weekend? This Saturday on Peacock, the Generals face the winless Pittsburgh Maulers (0-3). Pittsburgh was shut out last week by the Michigan Panthers, 24-0, and allowed nearly 250 rushing yards in the process.

It appears to be a quintessential “trap game.” No need to bring that term up with Johnson, though. It seems he already knows.

“Even though they haven’t won a game, teams like this are scary,” he said of the Maulers. “They don’t have nothing to lose. So now, when they go out and play, they’re playing free, playing with some fight left in them.

“At the end of the day, they’re still trying to climb up. If they start winning out, they can get back to being a (playoff) contender. So, I’ve just been staying on my teammates to make sure we don’t take this game lackadaisical. It’s a short turn-around for us. We’ve got to come out with the right intensity.”

RELATED: Everything you need to know about the 2022 USFL season – Teams, key dates, TV schedule, how to watch and more

From a young age, Johnson recognized that football could be a path for him.

After his family (which includes a younger brother, Nebraska cornerback Tyreke Johnson) moved to Florida during his childhood, he began to play the sport at multiple positions. When eighth grade rolled around, he had decided on becoming a quarterback full-time.

With that, he stopped playing basketball and running track. Under the tutelage of a trainer, Johnson became a fixture at camps and clinics, soaking up all he could about being a QB.

“That’s when I took it serious,” Johnson said. “I was like, ‘You know what, next year, I want to go to high school and be a four-year starter. I want to get offers. I want to go to school.’

“We started making goal sheets and spoke things into existence. That’s how we got to where we are today.”

De’Andre Johnson went on to become one of Florida’s top high school quarterbacks at First Coast High School in Jacksonville. Once that part of his career was complete, he set his sights on playing at his dream school, Florida State.

On June 24, 2015, during his freshman year, Johnson was involved in an altercation with a woman at a Tallahassee, Florida bar.

Surveillance video of the altercation shows Johnson striking the woman. He was subsequently charged with misdemeanor battery and dismissed from the FSU football program.

In the aftermath, Johnson apologized for his actions, while his attorney alleged that the woman had called Johnson racial epithets and provoked him leading up to the incident. The attorney also said Johnson was not the initial aggressor but was “owning this” and learning from the experience.

Johnson ultimately entered a plea deal. As part of the deal, he pleaded guilty, served six months of probation, entered a brief work program, and paid court fees and restitution to the victim.

As he sought to rebuild his career, Johnson also focused on sharing his lessons from the experience with younger players, in hopes they wouldn’t make the same mistake he did.

“We all go to seminars or the camps where you might hear older players preach ‘You have to understand where you’re at, understand where you are,’ but it doesn’t really click in until you go through it or you see someone that’s close to your age that’s gone through it,” he said. “You’re like, ‘He’s kind of like me; if he can go through it, I can go through it.’

“I had a chance to travel around the country … and talk to different kids and their parents about, once (their kids) get to college, what to expect … (to) understand who you are and what you represent.”

He says he still hears from some of those younger players to this day, thanking him for his insights. His talks with them also gave him a future goal: Founding a non-profit for juvenile youth in need of a second chance.

In doing so, he hopes to show them that there are many ways to succeed in life.

“They just need big brothers and the influence of people around them just to believe in them and help them understand that it doesn’t have to be sports,” he said.

RELATED: 2022 USFL TV schedule – Dates, times, channels, live streams for the 10-week inaugural football season

After his dismissal from Florida State, Johnson embarked on a circuitous college career.

Johnson sat out for a year before playing the 2016 season at East Mississippi Community College, where he became a focus of the Netflix football series “Last Chance U.”

Following that season, it appeared that LSU was his next stop.

“A lot of people don’t know that – I had an offer from LSU,” Johnson said. “But Les Miles had got fired a week later, when I was going down there to commit actually. So I didn’t really know what was going on. I kind of had a feeling based on what happened at Florida State, a lot of schools weren’t going to recruit me so that was kind of tough on me.”

A visit to Alabama followed. While he didn’t land with the Crimson Tide, he did find a way back to Div. I football.

Lane Kiffin, then Alabama’s offensive coordinator, had seen Johnson throw during his visit. And after Kiffin left Alabama to become the new head coach at Florida Atlantic, he called Johnson and told him he wanted to sign him.

But while FAU was, to Johnson, a “great experience,” his time there included more adversity. Blood clots in his arm sidelined him for much of the 2017 season. His arm had gone numb while playing in the season opener, but he only discovered he had clots during a doctor’s visit the following week before a road trip to play Wisconsin.

“We finally get to the ultrasound and she’s like, ‘Thank God you came in today.’ I’m like, ‘Why do you say that?’,” he said. “She’s like, ‘Because you have blood clots here and here in your arm, and I’m afraid that if you got on that plane tomorrow, you probably could’ve died if they would’ve traveled to your chest.’”

That led to going on blood thinners and being unable to workout for an extended period of time. He says he basically had to learn how to throw all over again after that. He spent 2018 with the Owls, but decided to make one last transfer to Texas Southern to close out his college career in 2019.

Two years later, Johnson’s pro career finally began in The Spring League. While Johnson had continued to train up to this point, it was more with the goal of a NFL workout in mind.

But a call from Larry Kirksey, his future head coach with the TSL’s Sea Lions, changed his plans. Looking back, Johnson says the TSL was much like the USFL – with one big difference.

“You only had a week to practice with the team and then go out there and play a six-week season,” Johnson said. “I learned a whole new playbook in a week.”

But the TSL did the job in getting Johnson back into game flow after not playing for two years.

“It was all about getting a feel for it, and once again, understanding – situation awareness, where to go with the ball, dial in and prepare the right way,” he said.

“… Going forward in the USFL, I feel I’m more prepared than I’ve ever been.”

More prepared to be a top quarterback? More prepared to do even more good off the field? More prepared to seize his moments?

If De’Andre Johnson has his way, it’ll be all of the above.

First and 10 with De’Andre Johnson

10 quick questions to get to know the new talent of the USFL

Pre-game ritual?

“It just depends on how I’m feeling throughout the day. If I’m real calm, I put some Phil Collins on, Fleetwood Mac, stuff like that. If I’m feeling real amped up and ready to go, I’ll put some Lil’ Durk on. But that’s probably it. Just chill in the locker room. I don’t really do too much.”

Post-game ritual?

“I like to go home and get something to eat after the game. A steak and sweet potatoes.”

Favorite food … Although you may have just answered that question?

“Nice steak and sweet potatoes. I’m a big wine drinker. Give me some wine and I’ll be good.”

 Favorite football player?

“That’s hard. I don’t really have a favorite football player. I’d say my favorite (sports) player would be LeBron (James). I’d love to meet LeBron one day.”

Favorite movie?

“Paid in Full and Friday Night Lights.”

 Favorite vacation spot?

“No, I don’t (have one) yet. I really haven’t had the opportunity to travel a lot lately, man, just based off the schedule with football. But this summer, I plan on traveling to Mexico. I want to go to Greece, Costa Rica – I just wanna go everywhere, man.”

 Most famous person you’ve met outside of football?

“My great-aunt, my father’s aunt, was (music producer) Sylvia Robinson, who was the founder of (Sugar Hill Records). I’d probably say that’s the most famous person I’ve ever met in my eyes, that really founded hip-hop. Also, my best friend’s uncle is Rick Ross. Actually, when I was going through my incident at Florida State, Rick was one of the people that reached out to me. Through my best friend, we’ve kind of had a relationship ever since.”

How would your family and friends describe you as a person?

“They’d describe me as being laid-back. They might say I’m shy a little bit. Outgoing. They’d probably say I’m real stylish.”

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be and why?

“Honestly, I feel like God has got a life already written. I don’t really have any regrets. Whatever is meant is gonna be meant for you and we’re all put on this Earth to go through some things that shape us into who we’re gonna be at the end. But the biggest thing I’d probably say… I’d not go out that night, at Florida State.”

Name one thing about yourself that not everybody knows about you.

“That’s tough right there… I’ll probably say I’m real thoughtful. In a way where I think of everything – I’m an overthinker, in a way, to where I’ll over-analyze every situation possible before acting on it, if that makes any sense.”

How to watch USFL Week 4 – Generals vs. Maulers, Gamblers vs. Breakers

Friday, May 6

  • Philadelphia Stars (1-2) vs. Michigan Panthers (1-2), 10:00 p.m. ET on FS1

Saturday, May 7

  • New Jersey Generals (2-1) vs. Pittsburgh Maulers (0-3), 2:30 p.m. ET on Peacock
  • Tampa Bay Bandits (2-1) vs. Birmingham Stallions (3-0), 7 p.m. ET on FOX

Sunday, May 8

  • Houston Gamblers (1-2) vs. New Orleans Breakers (2-1), 3 p.m. ET on NBC and Peacock

Control what you can control: How journey through the fire led Generals RB Darius Victor to the USFL

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“Life feels good when you’re winning,” says one of the men responsible for the Generals’ success last season, running back Darius Victor. “I’m playing the game I love, my team is winning games, and that’s all a man can ask for.”

Victor was named the USFL’s Offensive Player of the Year after leading the league with nine rushing touchdowns, ranking third in rushing yards (577), and fourth in yards per game (57.7). At 5’8″ and 209 pounds, with 30-inch quads (yes, you read that right…30 inches), the Generals RB is a wrecking ball on the field.

“Thick thighs save lives,” Victor recalls as he laughs about the Week 5 game-winning play. “I had to put them to use and push him [Perez] over to the endzone.”

With his light-hearted demeanor and self-described goofball personality, it would be hard to fathom the hell Darius Victor has walked through to get to where he is today.

“I’m not even supposed to be here”

Victor, who is one of seven children (4 brothers, and 2 sisters), was born in 1994 in a refugee camp in Africa’s Ivory Coast after his parents, Gary and Patricia, fled the first Liberian Civil War.

“Have you ever seen the movie Blood Diamond?” Victor asks, “That’s the type of environment I was born into.”

Victor and his family literally ran for their lives, hiding and sleeping in bushes for safety when their country was being torn apart by violence and bloodshed. Nearly 250,000 people — men, women, and children — lost their lives in Liberia’s civil war.

“I was too young to remember what happened at the time,” Victor told NBC Sports. “But from the stories my parents have told me about what we were running away from, I’m not even supposed to be here.”

The Victor family moved to the U.S. in 1999 and lived in Manassas, Virginia before moving to Hyattsville, Maryland, in 2002. After leaving everything behind, Gary and Patrica worked tirelessly to provide for their family and while their parents were out just trying to make ends meet, all seven of the Victor siblings Velma, Earl, Kevin, Darius, Leon, Shaka, and Nicole — looked out for one another. Helping with homework, making sure everyone was fed, and involved in activities. For Kevin and Darius in particular, that activity was football.

Sibling Rivalry

“My older brother Kevin was my role model growing up,” Victor recalls. “I used to go with him to football practice and he was pretty good. He was a Boys and Girls Club legend. I had to compete with him in everything and I wanted to be better than him in everything that I did. So I started playing football and tried really hard to be better than him. Having that role model to follow is what really gave me a love for the game.”

The duo, four years apart in age, went on to play football at Northwestern High School, sharpening each other with their competitive nature both on and off the field. But everything changed in December 2011, when Kevin was tragically shot and killed walking home from the local community center after playing basketball with friends — just one block away from his family’s apartment.

“Losing a child and a sibling is crazy,” Victor said. “It was tough but it made us even closer as a family. It made me go even harder because Kevin was always the tough one on me. When we were kids I would always cry on the football field if something didn’t go my way and Kevin would straighten me out.”

“His passing has given me a mindset of toughness and resiliency. I’m always thinking about him and trying to live up to the level of confidence that he had in me.”

In October, just 10 months after Kevin’s passing, Darius was in the midst of a breakout senior season when the Victor family’s apartment burned down.

“The toughest part wasn’t even losing our stuff but it was seeing my Mom and Dad cry again. That was so tough on me.” Darius recalls. “At that point in my life, I had to decide to never question God, believe that everything happens for a reason, and control what I could control.”

Towson Tough

With family at the forefront of his mind, Victor decided to play football at Towson University, where he earned a scholarship, roughly 45 minutes away from his hometown. He earned First-Team All-CAA honors in 2014, rushing for 1,305 yards and 12 touchdowns on 250 carries, but says he also a learned new level of toughness from his coaches and teammates that he still keeps in contact with today.

“Coach Reno Ferri really believed in me and that gave me so much confidence,” Victor said. “But there are so many guys there that really spoke into my life including my teammates FB Dreon Johnson, RB Terrance West, and coaches Rob and Jared Ambrose.”

Stay Ready

Victor, who only played in 4 games during his senior year of college due to a toe injury, went undrafted after graduating from Towson in 2017 but had several opportunities with NFL teams. Victor received an invite to the New York Jets rookie minicamp, the New Orleans Saints training camp, and even landed a spot on the Arizona Cardinals practice squad but unfortunately, those opportunities didn’t end the way he wanted them to.

However, the Hyattsville native didn’t let that discourage him.

“I’ve been through so much in life that I’ve grasped the concept of controlling what you control,” the 28-year-old said. “One of my mottos is to stay ready so you don’t have to get ready so doing that and just trusting God made me available mentally and physically for the next opportunity.”

For Victor, that meant showing up to train long hours after working a 9-5 job every day as a Sales Operations Manager at Penske and staying consistent no matter what — even when the CFL signed and cut him a day before he was supposed to leave for Canada (2019) and when the XFL season came to a sudden halt in the midst of a global pandemic (2020).

But when the USFL finally called, selecting him in the 6th round of the Supplemental Draft, he was ready. Victor says his love for his family and his faith in God is what fueled him during the hard times in life.

“Knowing all that my family has been through and the fact that we’re not even supposed to be here, every day I get is a blessing and I just want to make them proud. They are my why, ” says Victor, who is often spotted wearing merchandise with the phrase “Keep God 1st” on his clothing.

“I don’t care if you are a millionaire or dirt poor…life is going to life, but if you put God first everything will work itself out and that’s how I live my life.”

First and 10 with Darius Victor

To what do you attribute the New Jersey Generals’ early success?

“We have great coaching and great leadership. The team is very close and we hold each other accountable because we all have the same goal. We’ve all been through similar experiences. I’m pretty sure I’ve talked to 30 or 38 players who’ve been cut multiple times too and that creates a bond.”

“Also, we have a little chip on our shoulder because in preseason we were projected to finish last in the league due to our ‘talent level’, so shout out to whoever released those preseason polls because it made us hungry.”

If someone were to be a fly on the wall in the locker room, what’s one thing that they’d be surprised to find out about the New Jersey Generals?

“After a win, we do a ‘hip, hip hooray’ chant. Coach Riley goes ‘hip hip’ and the rest of the team goes ‘hooray’. It’s the greatest thing ever.”

What’s your role on the team?

“I’m one of the older guys on the team so I consider myself to be one of the leaders and the ‘special teams captain’. Coach always jokes around and says I’m the heart and soul of the team. I just want to do everything I can to make this team successful.”

How would you describe your style as a running back?

“I think I’m pretty balanced but the thing that separates me the most is my physicality. I don’t think a lot of human beings can run the football like me. If you just watch the tape or just watch the football games, that’s how I stand out.”

Pre-game hype song?

“I have to listen to the song “I’m a dog” by Gucci Mane that puts me in my zone.

Gameday superstitions?

“I have a superman Jesus cut-off shirt that I wear under my pads every game. I wouldn’t really call it a superstition but I wouldn’t feel right without it.”

What’s one thing about yourself that not everyone knows?

“I’m addicted to Candy Crush. I’m on level 4,650.”

Favorite Football player?

John Johnson, he’s the starting safety for the Cleveland Browns and also my best friend”.

Favorite Movie?

“Oh, Forest Gump. Easy.”

Favorite pair of kicks?

“Jordan 1s, I can’t pick one specific pair.”

Just Keep Going: Stallions RB CJ Marable makes a policy of perseverance

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RB CJ Marable was instrumental in helping the Birmingham Stallions become the inaugural USFL champions in 2022. Marable who was named the USFL Week 5 Offensive Player of the Week, was Birmingham’s leading rusher finishing the season with 401 rushing yards and 5 rushing touchdowns.

While his highlight reel was, quite literally, on display this past season, his journey to playing professional football has been far from easy.

A Dream is Born

Torrance Marable Jr., who goes by the nickname CJ, laced up his first set of football pads at the age of 5. Some of his earliest memories include tossing the ball outside with his father, Torrance Marable Sr., who doubled as his all-time quarterback in outdoor pickup games. It was in his hometown backyard in Decatur, Georgia that the elder Marable told his son he was capable of taking it to the next level, instilling in him a new passion for the game.

“He just looked at me one day and said, man, you’ve got it,” CJ recalls. “Just stay focused, stay consistent, and the sky is the limit. And that confirmed everything for me. I fell in love with the game and believed I could be whatever I wanted to be because my Dad said it.”

Marable, a two-star recruit coming out of Towers High School, initially signed with Arkansas State as a grayshirt, but in the weeks leading up to his expected start date, he says the communication with the school just stopped, unexpectedly. Arkansas State wasn’t returning his calls and when they finally called him back, they no longer had a place for him on the team.

Pivoting along the Path

Wanting to keep his football dreams alive, Marable pivoted his focus to playing at the junior college level. But a last-minute offer to play at Presbyterian College in Clinton, South Carolina — with a full scholarship — was one he couldn’t refuse. Marable’s 2017 freshman season was explosive: the Georgia native started all 11 games and led the Big South with 1,038 rushing yards only to find out that the school was pulling back on its football team and would become a non-scholarship program by 2020.

With his dreams once again the line, it was a familiar time for Marable – time to pivot. He transferred to Coastal Carolina, a place he says shaped him into a better person on and off the field.

“We had this acronym B.A.M., which stood for Be a Man,” Marable told NBC Sports. “Coach Jamey Chadwell taught us to be accountable for whatever we do and to stand on our own two feet. He told us that if you quit on football and can’t go through the hard times here, then there’s no way that you’ll be able to deal with the hard times in life.”

Deferred but not Denied

Marable finished his collegiate career with a streak of 32 straight games with at least one reception. In his three years at Coastal Carolina (2018-2020), he rushed for 2,691 yards with 41 total touchdowns, assembling impressive enough stats and film to sign as an undrafted free agent contract with the Chicago Bears in 2021. But once again, things didn’t go as planned and Marable was released before the start of the regular season.

“I wasn’t comfortable where I was because I felt like I should have been drafted,” he said. “I felt like I had a point to prove. I did what I was supposed to do but it just wasn’t in my favor at the time. I never wanted to question God so I just had to stay consistent, stay focused, and continue to grind to get to where I wanted to be.”

It was in this period, dialed in on training and staying pro-ready with tunnel vision focus, that he heard about the USFL, not just once but on three separate occasions. First, the idea came from his manager, who he calls “Hood”, who thought it would be a good opportunity for the running back. His trainer for the NFL combine agreed. But Marable brushed the idea off both times, wanting to stay focused on that potential NFL opportunity. It wasn’t until his girlfriend’s father brought it up again that Marable took it as a sign to do his own research and take the USFL seriously as a path forward in professional football.

Just Keep Going

Looking back, Marable credits his strong support system, specifically his Mother, Sabrina Sims, for helping him stay positive in periods of disappointment and uncertainty.  “She reminded me that every storm I’ve been in, I’ve got out of.”

“Life is going to hit you,” the 25-year-old said. “Nothing is going to go as planned but never give up. If I could go back in time and give my younger self advice it would be these two simple words: keep going. God’s got you, never give up.”

Leading by Example

Marable, who welcomed a baby boy in March with girlfriend Bayley Randall, says he wants to instill that lesson in his son Trae (Torrance Christopher Marable III).

“When he grows up I want to be that example and show him that Dad never gave up. Even though I failed at times the difference between me and anybody else is that I just never gave up.”

The Stallions running back is currently working towards a Master’s degree in Sports Psychology. He wants to help other athletes develop when his football career is over — which, at the rate he’s playing, doesn’t look like it’ll be anytime soon.

First and 10 with CJ Marable

Pregame ritual?

“I love to listen to music, my favorite artist is Future so that’s all I play. But my go-to hype-up album is “Thug Motivation” by Young Jeezy.

What is your role on the team?

To get the offense rolling. My strengths include blocking the ball out the backfield, my vision, and my speed.

To what do you attribute the Birmingham Stallions’ early success?

“I’m really impressed with how well we get along with each other. We laugh with each other. We joke with each other. We are a family. We spend our off days and downtime together. The offensive linemen and the running backs go out to eat every Thursday or Friday depending on the week.”

“Honestly, it feels great when everything you work for is paying off. But in the back of our minds, we know that we have to stay consistent. We have a bullseye on our chest. Everybody wants to beat the Birmingham Stallions.”

What is it like being the only USFL team to play in front of a home crowd?

“I feel like the fans are really coming out there and doing their job and it’s helped us a lot, especially on third downs you can just hear them yelling ‘defense, defense’. We’re the first professional football team for Alabama so it feels great to be able to just go out there and put on for the city of Birmingham.”

Favorite Running Back?

Reggie Bush. When I was at Carolina, we played against BYU on “College GameDay”, and I had a great game. Later during the week, I got interviewed by Reggie Bush so that was a cool experience.”

Favorite Food?

“Wings. All flats.”

Favorite Movie?

“Friday”

Favorite Vacation Spot?

Hawaii

How would your family and friends describe you as a person?

“I’m a driven person and I won’t let anything stop me from getting to where I want to be in life. I’m also funny and outgoing.

Name one thing about yourself that not everybody knows about you.

“I enjoy fishing.”

RELATED: Control what you can control – How journey through the fire led Generals RB Darius Victor to the USFL