Quarterback Turned Fullback: Johnny Stanton IV Continues His Rollercoaster Career in Minnesota

Photo Credit: Stephen R. Sylvanie (USA Today Sports)

No part of Johnny Stanton IV’s path to the NFL has been easy.

Having a successful high school career derailed by a knee injury? Not easy.

Bouncing around to three different colleges? Not easy.

Training for four different positions in the offseason and being told by the Minnesota Vikings that he’d be playing something completely different? Nope, definitely not easy.

Stanton is part of the Vikings 90-man roster and just wrapped up his first professional mini-camp. He is currently Minnesota’s back-up fullback to C.J. Ham and hoping to make a preseason splash to earn a roster spot, whether that be with the Vikings or elsewhere.

Six years ago, however, he was one of the nation’s most coveted quarterbacks.

“I went through a rollercoaster,” Stanton told Zone Coverage in a recent interview.

While attending Santa Margarita High School (Calif.), Stanton led his team to a state title and earned the nickname “Johnny Tebow” for his tireless work ethic. He’s built like Tim Tebow, too, earning a listing of 6-foot-2, 245 pounds in college — atypical for a quarterback.

He had the opportunity to attend the likes of Oregon, Washington or Wisconsin as a four-star recruit and wound up opting for the Big Ten’s Nebraska, but a torn left ACL during his senior high school season cost him his true freshman season with the Cornhuskers.

Stanton found himself pushed down the depth chart to third-string status when he returned in 2014. He threw one pass that season — his only career throw for Nebraska. The following spring he was informed by offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf that he wouldn’t be on the team’s 105-man training camp roster, which meant he’d have to wait until August to practice with the team.

Seeking a fresh start, Stanton transferred to Saddleback College, where he threw for 27 touchdowns and rushed for 12 more in his lone season. The performance earned him an offer to UNLV, which needed a quarterback after winning just three games in 2015.

It seemed like a second chance for Stanton to thrive, but a partial LCL tear in his right knee cut his junior season short after going 1-3 in four starts, throwing six touchdowns and six interceptions.

As a senior, the Rebels gave Stanton some work at linebacker while Armani Rogers took the reins at quarterback, but a head injury to Rogers sent Stanton back under center for three games late in the season. He threw four touchdowns, rushed for two more and led UNLV to a 2-1 record over that stretch.

“They had some designed runs for me. They often used me like a third-down running back when I was in the game,” Stanton told Zone Coverage. “As I like to say, I’m gonna run through you, not around you.”

Figuring out a position

After college, interest was lukewarm on Stanton. He had started just seven games as a quarterback with a career completion percentage of 54.1 percent.

After some cursory inquiries with CFL teams, Stanton decided to make a run at the NFL by expanding his repertoire. He trained at quarterback, linebacker, tight end and long snapper in advance of his Pro Day.

Stanton cut some weight to increase his agility, then performed a 37-inch vertical and ran a 4.74 40-yard dash. Most impressively, he posted 31 bench reps at 225 pounds. That would’ve led all running backs, linebackers or tight ends at the NFL Combine — quarterbacks usually don’t bench.

“I was trying to make myself as valuable as possible,” Stanton said.

Only one team came calling: the Vikings. They invited him to rookie camp on a tryout basis as a tight end. After breaking practice on Friday, May 4, Stanton found out the following Monday he was making the team — but with a catch. He’d be a fullback; one of the few areas he hadn’t practiced over the previous few months.

Stanton said he heard about the position switch on Twitter.

“You find out that whatever you trained for was completely wrong,” he said, laughing.

“Whatever they saw in me, I felt like I put on as good of a rookie camp as possible. I obviously made some mistakes, and obviously tight end was a very new position for me at that point, and then I’ve made the conversion since.”

The new fullback has been aided by Ham, the incumbent starter, and running backs coach Kennedy Polamalu. Stanton has had to adjust his eye level from being the quarterback seeing over the line of scrimmage to being the fullback crouching down two feet lower in the backfield.

“Probably about the second week I started opening up my eyes toward the defense, being able to see what was in front of me and be able to adjust my job,” Stanton said.

Playing for ‘Papa’

Stanton is the fourth of his name. He never knew his great grandfather, the original Johnny Richard Stanton, but he takes pride in his late grandfather’s service as a judge and a marine. Johnny Stanton Jr. flew combat missions in World War II, chiefly the Battle of Okinawa, which preceded the atomic bombs and Japan’s surrender.

Stanton IV wore No. 4 in high school and college, not because he’s the fourth man to have the name, but because his grandfather, who he affectionately calls ‘Papa,’ flew an F4U Corsair aircraft.

“My dad was always number four, and I kind of took that on,” said Stanton. “That was my way of honoring him, my namesake, and since I can’t be four anymore, I’m going to see if I can get “IV” on the back of my jersey, but if not, it’ll always be in my heart.”

Stanton’s dad was a collegiate swimmer at Long Beach State. So was Stanton’s uncle, Pat, who won the 1980 Big West Athlete of the Year. His mother, Lori, played college softball.

“There’s definitely some athleticism [in the family],” said Stanton, “but I’m hoping to carry on that tradition.”

The next hurdle

Stanton’s next challenge is finding a 53-man roster or practice squad on which to spend the season.

The fullback position is being fazed out by some teams, leaving fewer openings for the 23 year old. Though Stanton is listed as a running back on the team’s website, he is considered a fullback on the rosters given to reporters, and Stanton said he has not taken any running back reps during practice.

Ham played 18.3 percent of snaps last season as the team’s fullback. If Ham goes down to injury, Stanton could be the next man up.

Having attended three schools, overcome two knee injuries and trained for four — now five — different positions, Stanton knows that his best ability is his flexibility.

“I’m a fullback,” he said, “but if they want to change that tomorrow, I’m willing to change that. I just want to be where I’m valuable, where I’m wanted.”

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