IRVING, Texas -- From time to time, Jerrod Johnson would approach his coaches and notify them that his practice day was over. The pain in his throwing shoulder would be too much.
This would happen, Texas A&M passing game coordinator and quarterbacks coach Tom Rossley said, as late as the week of the Aggies' lopsided 30-9 loss to Missouri.
Publicly, everyone in College Station insisted Johnson's shoulder was "fine" at worst and 100 percent at best.
Anyone who watched him play last year and compared it to his play when he returned after offseason shoulder surgery knew otherwise. Understandably not wanting to make excuses, Johnson told anyone who asked that his arm was 100 percent. He told his coaches when the season began that his arm strength was back to around "80-85 percent."
"I don’t know if it was even that," Rossley said. "He always is going to say the cup is more full."
The media named him the Big 12's Preseason Player of the Year. Rossley -- and the rest of the conference and country -- saw a junior that could make every throw on the field and made plays with his feet. Deep balls floated into teammate Jeff Fuller's hands weekly. He'd drill passes over the middle to receivers like Uzoma Nwachukwu and Ryan Tannehill.
But this year, something was different.
"He just couldn’t do that," Rossley said. "He could do it, but just not the same velocity and get it there on time like he did as a junior."
Texas A&M lost a crushing Thursday night game in Stillwater to Oklahoma State on a last-second field goal. Johnson threw for more than 400 yards and five touchdowns. He also threw four interceptions, the final one setting up the Cowboys' game-winner.
Only one of those four interceptions was a mental mistake.
"He just couldn’t make some of the throws. They were making plays on us," Rossley said. "When you’ve got to get a ball into a window, you’ve got to get it there pretty quick, and he wasn’t able to do that."
Doctors told Johnson and his coaches he would keep getting stronger as his arm got more work and the season progressed. It just didn't happen fast enough. And with a capable quarterback behind him, Rossley and coach Mike Sherman decided to make the switch to Tannehill against Texas Tech on Oct. 30, after giving the pair even playing time in a win over Kansas.
Tannehill hadn't played significant snaps before that Kansas game, but at 3-3, fans wanted something to change. The Aggies had more problems than just at quarterback, but the time had come to give Tannehill a chance.
"We kind of got to a point where we couldn’t wait any more," Rossley said.
Though Johnson's injury derailed his senior season, doctors don't believe it will carry over to the rest of his career. When Rossley looks at Johnson, he sees a coach, but he also sees a quarterback whose arm has continued to progress as Tannehill carried the Aggies to a six-game winning streak and a berth in Friday's Cotton Bowl.
"He’s getting stronger still," Rossley said of Johnson, who also visited renowned sports surgeon James Andrews recently for a consult on the throwing shoulder. "The best I’ve seen him throw was when we were warming up to play Texas [in the season finale on Thanksgiving], but he has ups and downs. He still needs some offseason strengthening to get him back to where he was."
Any talk of a second surgery has been between Johnson and his doctors, Rossley said.
If Tannehill should get injured against LSU, Rossley would feel better about his backup, the school's all-time leader in total offense, than just about anyone else in the country.
"He would definitely be better than he was back earlier in the year," Rossley said.
That could carry over to an NFL career. Johnson projected as a late-round NFL Draft pick before the season, and because of his struggles and injury, isn't likely to be drafted unless he can impress scouts with a showcase of his old arm in pre-draft workouts. Rossley says it should still take time, but the NFL types that he, Johnson and Sherman have talked to still say his future isn't on the sidelines.
"They feel like he can still be in the NFL. He’s big, strong, smart, athletic. He has every quality that you could ever want in a quarterback. They’ll get that [shoulder] fixed and he’ll have a pro career," Rossley said.