Many players have had unique paths to the NFL in the past. Every year we hear stories about athletes who only started playing football the last handful of years. Or players that previously excelled in another sport (most of the time basketball) only to try their hand on the gridiron later on. Or players that were working menial real-world jobs before improbably making a roster. Or players that bounced around in the CFL and other developmental leagues before getting a tryout at the highest level.
But playing football at three different colleges, mostly at quarterback with a little special teams and linebacker sprinkled in, only to end up getting your shot at...fullback of all places? That’s about as unique as it gets.
Johnny Stanton was a highly coveted dual-threat quarterback coming out of high school and ultimately chose to attend Nebraska. However, a knee injury his senior year of high school forced him to redshirt his first year. Stanton appeared in only two games for the Huskers the following season before transferring to a junior college close to his hometown of Rancho Santa Margarita, California.
Stanton led the Saddleback College Gauchos to the California Community College Football Coaches Association State Championship game in his lone year there, amassing over 4,000 total yards and 40 total touchdowns. After that it was off to UNLV for his final two college seasons. The Runnin’ Rebels had a few coaches on staff from Stanton’s time in Nebraska, most notably Offensive Coordinator Barney Cotton.
Stanton won the starting quarterback job in Las Vegas to start the 2016 season. Unfortunately, another injury sidelined Stanton just four games into his UNLV career. He ended up starting only three games at quarterback for UNLV in 2017 as an injury fill-in. Although Stanton had fallen out of favor as the starting quarterback, his 6’2”, 245-pound frame allowed him to get some work at linebacker and special teams. He recorded nine tackles and had a blocked punt while he wasn’t under center his senior year.
Unsurprisingly, there wasn’t a ton of interest for Stanton at quarterback after college. The Vikings were the only team that invited him to their rookie mini camp. Stanton worked out at quarterback, tight end, linebacker, and long snapper during the session.
Yes, you read that last position right: long snapper. Kevin McDermott shouldn’t be too worried about his job though; Stanton explained “I haven’t been doing nearly as well as I have hoped. It’s a lot different doing it on your own than doing it on the field with six guys next to you.”
After all was said and done, the Vikings informed Stanton that he was going to be part of the 90-man Training Camp roster.
The only catch? It wasn’t at any of the four positions Stanton worked out at. It was a position he had never played before—fullback. “I had no idea I was going to be coming in at fullback,” Stanton explained. “I found out several hours after I was signed over Twitter.”
So to recap: from highly recruited quarterback, to redshirting due to injury, to transferring to junior college, to winning the quarterback job at a new college, to another injury, to spot starter/linebacker/special teamer, to NFL fullback. All in the course of about five years.
Not exactly the traditional career path in professional football.
While most would view all the setbacks and adversity as a detriment, Stanton has the mindset that it has helped him get to where he is now. “It has its advantages. Playing quarterback before has helped me learn to read defenses. Switching to different schools, I’ve had to pick up a lot of different playbooks. I think those things are working to my favor [for learning a new position].”
Stanton believes that how he played quarterback throughout his career has helped ease the transition as well. “I think the physicality of [fullback] isn’t completely foreign to me because I was a physical quarterback. I was a downhill running quarterback. I’m going to run through you, not around you.”
He acknowledges that there is still a lot to learn in his new position. “I do have a lot working against me...There’s a whole lot of technique I have to learn. But between Coach [Kennedy] Polamalu and C.J. Ham teaching me, I have a lot going for me in that respect.”
One of the main reasons why the Vikings were willing to give Stanton a shot in the backfield was because of his raw strength numbers. He put up an astonishing 31 reps of 225 pounds at his pro day. But Stanton knows that he can’t rely on those impressive numbers alone. “I’d say my athleticism shows a little bit in my pro day numbers. But if you ask a lot of people they might say bench press is one of the more overrated pro day stats. I’m proud of it, but I don’t take an overwhelming amount of pride in it either. Just doing the bench isn’t exactly a football related motion.”
Athletic players on the fringe of the roster usually cut their teeth on the special teams units, and Stanton is no different there. He’s on the depth chart for nearly every kick and return team in Training Camp. But given his unique path to the NFL and his new Offensive Coordinator’s unique way of using former quarterbacks, has Stanton been lobbying John DeFilippo to incorporate an updated version of the Philly Special with Stanton in the Trey Burton role? “[Laughs] You know I have my hopes for that, but I’m really just focusing on fullback for now.”
For someone learning the position, you could do much worse than Dalvin Cook when it comes to runners to block for. Cook has been impressing Stanton just as much as the rest of us in camp so far. “He looks really good and I think he’s showing that. After the play you’re usually expected to finish for about ten more yards, yet he runs 50 yards down the field just to show everybody ‘I’m good.’ He looks the part. He’s strong. I think he’ll be ready for sure.”
C.J. Ham, the player in front of Stanton on the depth chart at fullback, has still taken the time to mentor the rookie. “C.J. has been an immense help. I sit next to him in meetings just so I can always ask questions of him. He has been a lot of help to me. I wouldn’t be as advanced as I am at this point—like I said, I still have a lot to learn—but I wouldn’t be at this point without C.J. having taught me a whole lot.” Stanton realizes that he’s still in direct competition with Ham though. “I can’t rely on him to teach me everything he knows. We’re both still trying to make the team. I know I have to do a lot on my own, a lot with Coach Polamalu, to be able to shore up any weaknesses in my game and become a better all-around football player.”
While there are few stories as unique as that of Johnny Stanton, there are even fewer that end up sticking around after the cuts. He is fully aware that he must do everything he can in all facets of his game over the next couple weeks, whether it’s to earn a spot in Minnesota or earn a chance with another NFL team. “You have to do as much as you can do. The more you can do, the more valuable you are. You have to become as indispensable as you can to the team for them to keep you. Making yourself as valuable and indispensable as possible, in practice, on special teams, in the meeting room, is the name of the game.”
On Monday, the name of the game is the first padded practice, something Stanton is looking forward to in his new spot. “I’m really excited. With the physicality of the position, and it’s something I’ve never really done before. Putting the pads on just gives it a little extra twist.”
Stanton will have to overcome some pretty steep odds to make even the Practice Squad, but it’s a test he is more than willing to face. After all, his entire career has prepared him for new challenges.
“I’ve learned from all the adversity. I have learned that in no way is it all going to go your way. If I’m able to work through that, it will only make me stronger and a better player.”