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PREP FOOTBALL 2000 / SOUTH COAST LEAGUE

Mission Viejo's Hart Steps Up in Class

In less than two years at the Johnson School for Quarterbacks, 6-1 senior has become a top prospect with a scholarship to USC.

September 01, 2000|DAVE McKIBBEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Bob Johnson's last three quarterbacks at El Toro High--Bret Johnson, Steve Stenstrom and Rob Johnson--went on to play Pac-10 football. Two of them, Rob Johnson and Stenstrom, are still playing in the NFL.

Billy Hart hardly seemed like someone who would help Bob Johnson, now at Mission Viejo, carry on that fine tradition. A shortstop with a quick bat and good range whose quarterbacking experience was limited mostly to the sandlot, Hart couldn't have been further from a Pac-10 scholarship when he transferred to Mission Viejo last year from Foothill.

But last month, Hart received and accepted a scholarship offer to play quarterback at USC. How did it happen? Hart says it wouldn't have happened without his father's insistence that he give football a try, or without the quarterback education he received from Bob and Bret Johnson.

"I didn't even want to play football," Hart said. "I wanted to play baseball in college. I'd played it since I was 6. It was in my blood."

Hart had thrown a football around on the streets with his friends, but he didn't play organized football until his freshman year at Foothill. That year, he played quarterback, free safety and returned punts. The next year, he was a varsity backup quarterback.

"My dad made me play," Hart said. "He thought for some reason I could be a good quarterback."

Toward the end of Hart's sophomore season, he began working privately with Bret Johnson, a former Michigan State, UCLA and Canadian League quarterback. Johnson saw a good athlete who had some size at 6 feet 1, a strong arm, and a lot of work to do.

"He didn't have a clue when I first got him and he explained it to me that way," Bret Johnson said.

But he also didn't have any habits, good or bad. "He was willing to learn and he was excited about seeing the progress after just six weeks," Johnson said.

Over the summer, Hart transferred to Mission Viejo, where Bob Johnson had been named coach and Bret was hired as quarterbacks coach. Hart won the starting job, but he and the team had plenty of growing pains as the Diablos began the year with four losses.

"We were young," Hart said. "We had two sophomores [Robbie Dubois and Ryan Powdrell] and myself in the backfield. We just didn't come together as a team. My inexperience led to a few losses. I made some bad turnovers and I was misreading defenses. It was like a freshman season for me."

Said Bret Johnson: "He might have put a little pressure on himself because he was a transfer and he was playing for Bob Johnson. He wasn't physically capable of taking the game over himself and he had a young team around him."

Hart began to settle in midway through the season. He played a stretch of five games in which he completed nearly 60% of his passes with eight touchdowns and no interceptions. The Diablos rallied to make the playoffs, but they lost in the first round to Palos Verdes Peninsula. Hart finished with more than 1,700 passing yards, threw for 13 touchdowns and had eight passes intercepted.

After the season, Hart continued to work with the Johnsons on his footwork, throwing technique and the art of reading defenses. In July, he was invited to the Elite 11 quarterback camp, run by Bob Johnson and his coaching staff. The camp features the top 11 high school quarterbacks and five premier college quarterbacks.

"Billy was one of the top four or five kids in that camp," Bret Johnson said. "So that shows you how far he has come."

Hart, who hit .409 for the Diablos' baseball team last year, was recruited by USC, Wisconsin, Cal and UCLA. He picked USC.

Now that Hart has dealt with the hard part of his senior year--recruiting--he plans to lead the Diablos to their first league title in 10 years.

"I know more about reading defenses than any high school quarterback around," he said. "Now, I just have to take advantage of my knowledge."

The Diablos' backfield of Hart, Dubois and Powdrell, both Division I prospects, could be the best in the county.

"We know we're good," Hart said. "Now, we've just got to go out and prove it."

Bret Johnson agreed.

"He's well beyond his years in terms of knowledge of reading defenses. But he's got to make the plays that he didn't make last year. He can't go backward."

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