By Kyle Daubs

It appears that Mattoon has found “the man.”

After barely making a dent in Mattoon’s loss to Mount Zion the opening week of the season, senior running back Jakai Johnson has taken the reins. 

Johnson has recorded back-to-back 100-yard games in the team’s recent efforts against Taylorville and Effingham. In Week 2, Johnson rushed for 109 yards on 22 carries to lead Mattoon to its first win over Taylorville in four years. In a 28-0 loss to No. 3 Effingham, Johnson gained 103 yards on 30 carries, including 22 carries in the first half. 

“It means that all the work I spent in the offseason is paying off,” said Johnson. “I’ve been wanting to get better. I want to succeed and I think from what I am doing so far that I am succeeding. I put a lot of work into the offseason working on my speed and my footwork. I think the coaches have seen how hard I have been working and they have put their faith in me to be the man running the ball.”

Nate Eldridge led Mattoon in rushing with 56 yards on 10 carries in the opener, but it appears that the Green Wave have settled on Johnson receiving a bulk of the work at the halfway point in the season. 

With three games left, Johnson had a goal of reaching 1,000 yards on the ground despite only playing a 6-game schedule. Johnson realizes that goal may be unattainable, but he wants to push himself to achieve as much as possible during the remainder of the season. 

“Before the season, 900 to 1,000 was the goal,” said Johnson. “I’m hoping there is one game that I can pop off for 200. I’m just going to keep working towards it over the next three games.”

Mattoon plays at Monticello this Saturday, returns home against Lincoln the following Friday, and will finish the season against Charleston in a Coles County Clash that might get moved back to EIU. 

“Hopefully, that’s one of the games I really pop off,” said Johnson. “That’s a big game and a focus for us for sure. I don’t remember the last time we have lost to them, so we want to keep the streak going. I have faith in my team and we are all hoping to have a really good game.”

Last year, Johnson was not on anybody’s radar. Linebacker Zach Shick was the team’s only returning All-Apollo selection.

Johnson believes the team, now 1-2, has improved, specifically on an offensive line that has helped him achieve his success. 

“Our line is pretty good,” said Johnson. “They give me the room to run. When they block, they allow me to get to the outside and make a move. From there, I feel I can do whatever I want to do. Effingham was a little better, but I think if we had converted more downs on offense it would have been a better game.”

Johnson will have three games left to provide schools with enough tape to make a decision on him. Johnson says he has talked to a few schools and has a few visits lined up in his dream to play for a college program. 

That’s why this season is so important, even with having to wear masks while playing. 

“Having this season means a lot,” said Johnson. “I was really hoping we would have a season. I have been playing football since fifth grade and have been working hard. My goal is to play college football and it all depended on if we would have a season or not.”

Johnson said that playing with masks doesn’t bother him, but it forced the team to remember they must bring the energy each day. Johnson said having fewer fans has affected them more, which is why he is hopeful that playing the final two games in Coles County will give the Green Wave a final push. 

“You still have to have that motivation and bring the energy to your teammates everyday,” said Johnson. “Keep our heads up. Be positive. At home games, it’s a little bit easier because we can have fans. They bring a great atmosphere and they are a big motivation for us.”