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Johnson leading Red Land to playoff contention

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Justin Johnson wants his senior year to go the same way Phil Overton's did in 2014.

The Red Land senior running back was a sophomore backup to Overton that year. Johnson saw up close just how hard Overton worked in practice as he earned all-state honors after rushing for 1,776 yards and 31 touchdowns. Johnson picked up some carries behind Overton as the Patriots went to the District 3 Class 4A semifinals.

“How I work today is how (Overton) worked his senior year," Johnson said. "I learned a lot. We had a good team his senior year and we’re trying to do that right now.”

Johnson has already helped Red Land get off to a much more successful start than many expected after a 3-7 season last year. The Patriots are 4-1 through the first half of their season, with four of the games decided by 11 points or less. They currently rank sixth among the 29 Class 5A teams in District 3.

Johnson has been right in the middle of that success with 701 yards so far this year, including the game-winning run and two-point conversion in a wild 17-16 win against Susquehanna Township last week. He also provided the game-winning kickoff return in Week 2 against Cocalico, taking it 98 yards to break a tie with less than five minutes left.

“He’s literally the hardest-working kid I’ve ever been around," Red Land coach Chad Weaver said of Johnson. "Whether it’s in the weight room, running or out here on the football field, he’s always going above and beyond what’s expected out of him. He has the drive that very few people at this age have.”

Johnson, like Overton, stands no taller than 5-foot-10. But he weighs close to 200 pounds.

His size, coupled with his quickness, requires several players to take him down. He almost always gains positive yardage and becomes more difficult to stop as a game wears on.

He helps the Patriots keep moving the chains, keeping the ball away from their opponent while killing time off the clock. That strategy worked nearly to perfection in a season-opening win against Bishop McDevitt, a defending district champion, as Red Land ran about twice as many plays as the Crusaders.

“We’ve really done a nice job, I think, of holding teams to pretty few points," Weaver said. "That puts our offense in shape that we can score a couple touchdowns a game and end up in a good positions.”

This Friday, the Patriots look to keep their success going against Lower Dauphin in a game they lost 35-0 last year. They have a bye next week before finishing the schedule against four more Mid Penn Keystone Division opponents.

Every game holds a lot of meaning, not just in the conference standings, but in the district rankings as well. With so many District 3 teams in Class 5A in the new PIAA classification format, Weaver thinks Red Land will need to go 4-1 or better the rest of the season to be one of the eight teams that makes the playoffs.

With so much on the line, Johnson feels just fine with playing so many games that go down to the wire.

“I like that atmosphere," Johnson said. "That’s when big-time players make big-time plays.”