With a sprinters’ speed and a nose for the end zone, Belleville West senior Paris Johnson can fill a variety of roles on a football field.
Maroons’ head coach Cameron Pettus likes to use Johnson “all over the place,” matching his skills at wide receiver or tailback against the defense of what ever team West is playing.
Friday night, Johnson got to do a little bit of everything in a Southwestern Conference game against Collinsville, but it was his 10 carries from the backfield that changed the game and stoked the Maroons’ 49-20 come-from-behind win.
“You can tell he’s a track runner when he’s out there,” said West senior quarterback Logan Betz. “As long as he’s in the game making an impact and helping our team win, I don’t care where he is.”
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The BND Player of the Week amassed a season-high 116 yards rushing, including a pair of touchdown runs, the first of which tied the game at 14 early in the second half.
The second of Johnson’s touchdowns, a 27-yarder, capped a 42-6 Belleville West scoring run.
One side of me is relieved to be back, the other side of me feels like I have more to prove. I'm striving to do better than last week.
Paris Johnson, Belleville West senior running back/receiver
“We needed to get out onto the perimeter more with Paris, because he is so dang-gum quick,” said Pettus, after the game Friday.
Betz himself had a career day of his own in West’s win Friday. Known mainly as a passer, he carried 10 times for 111 yards and the first three-touchdown game of his life.
But it was a coming out party for Johnson, who has been used sparingly since being injured in the second quarter of the 2015 season opener. He missed all of last year after surgery repaired a torn ACL and meniscus in his right knee.
The Maroons reached the playoffs at 5-4, but Betz says they weren’t the same team without Johnson’s speed and versatility.
“It was devastating seeing a kid work that hard all summer and blessed with so much speed and football ability in general,” Betz said. “It stinks that he couldn’t come back and be with us last year because we really needed him in that playoff run.”
It’s been a slow start this year, too. Through the first three games, Johnson had just five carries and five receptions for 73 total yards, 56 of which game in a week 3 win over O’Fallon.
But his performance against Collinsville went a long way toward restoring Johnson’s confidence in the health of his knee.
The Kahoks stacked their defense up the middle, throwing a monkey wrench in the Maroons’ plans to run between tackles. Pettus turned to Johnson at half time, telling him they needed his speed on the edges to spread the defense.
“Coach loves to pound the rock. He preaches about it every day,” Johnson said. “But early in the game, Collinsville was taking away the middle. At half time, Coach said he was going to move me into the backfield. I was given the ball take advantage of the edge and make plays.”
It was devastating seeing a kid work that hard all summer and blessed with so much speed and football ability in general.
Logan Betz, Belleville West senior quarterback on senior teammate Paris Johnson
Johnson acknowledges that the recovery has been slow and that it’s taken time to get used to a protective knee brace. But he says he’s back to full strength and eager to make up for lost time, especially this week as the Maroons prepare for their traditional rivalry game at East St. Louis.
West will be going for their third straight win over the Flyers, currently ranked No. 1 in Illinois Class 7A.
“We had a great start to practice yesterday, so I feel like we’re dialed in and know what we have to do to beat those guys,” Johnson said. “Wherever they want to use me, I’m just looking forward to contributing and helping my team win.”
Johnson also plans to return this spring to the Maroons’ track team, where he competes in the 100 meter sprint, the 4x100 meter relay and 4x200 meter relay.
So far, Johnson has a scholarship offer only from Missouri Baptist University, an NAIA program in west St. Louis County, but he continues to receive mail every day from college recruiters looking for both running backs and wide receivers.
He’ll be making an official visit to Indiana on Saturday.
“One side of me is relieved to be back, the other side of me feels like I have more to prove,” he said. “I’m striving to do better than last week.”