Quick turnaround: Buzea has returned Crown Point to prominence in just his second season as coach
La PORTE -- When Craig Buzea took over as Crown Point football coach two springs ago, JJ Johnson probably didn't have a lot of believers in his future as the signal caller of the program.
"The naysayers said he can't be a quarterback," Buzea said. "Lo and behold."
In time, Johnson had the only believer he needed in the new guy in charge.
"He's really good at making us believe," Johnson said. "We go into every game thinking we've got everything we need. He always says, all we've got is all we need. I think everyone on the team really believes that."
A year-and-a-half into his tenure at CP, Buzea already has the Bulldogs sitting atop the Region, and Johnson is one of the big reasons why.
"He's our guy," Buzea said. "We make our game plan around him. I haven't had as many dual threats as regular throwers. We're able to do a lot of different things with him, whether it's run game or pass game. What you see is a lot of hard work and dedication."
Anybody who knows Buzea dating back to the 1990s, when he took Portage to the 5A state finals in his first year, figured Crown Point would rise to prominence before long under his direction, but to do it so soon?
"I think just believing in the process and having some experience," Buzea said. "These guys have been under us for a year. They know what our expectations are. We have a nice offensive line that's able to make decisions on the run. I don't know if we expected it come this soon -- it's probably quicker than what we thought -- but our guys are playing hard and they take coaching well. Good things have happened and we're really pleased with where we're at. To get where we're at, I don't want to say it was unexpected, but it's hard. I think we have a great coachning staff. The guys have bought into it."
In Crown Point's first season with Buzea, it went 5-5. The first hint that it was moving in the right direction was a 29-13 sectional loss to a Merrillville team that had won their regular-season meeting 50-14.
"Merrillville had us down 50 at halftime, Valpo beat us by close to 50 (42), Andrean stuck us good (21-7)," Buzea said. "We really pattern our summer schedule on replicating teams that we're going against. We found three Illinois teams that were very similar to Andrean, similar to Valpo and similar to Merrillville, we scrimmage them and find out what we want to do against these teams. It helped us out greatly."
Much of the rest, as cliche as it sounds, was simple, good old-fashioned time and effort.
"I'm not shocked at all," La Porte coach Bob James said. "'Buz' is a tireless worker. He has nothing else to do. He's like, I'm showing up at 6 a.m., you're coming in and we're working. Those kids have been working five, six days forever. He's just grinding with them. I think it started when they kicked our (butt) over there (last year). They're thinking, all right, we might be pretty good. They realized the quarterback was pretty good."
The off-season was a tremendous springboard for CP, which made marked strides in the weight room.
"That had a lot to do with it," Buzea said. "I don't think anybody would argue, we don't have the best roster, talent wise, in our conference. I don't think it's magic, I think it's hard work. The guys got tremendously stronger. Prior to that, whether it was COVID or whatever, we weren't there. We made very big gains."
Friday's 51-10 rout of La Porte improved CP to 7-0.
"I think going into this year, I don't really know if all of our guys expected it," Johnson said.
Along the way, it has reversed losses to Andrean (28-18), Merrillville (48-40) and Valparaiso (34-13). The other team it lost to last year, Michigan City, is up in week nine.
"We're talking about some teams that just rolled us last year," Buzea said. "To come back and beat (Merrillville), that's quite a turnaround. We beat Valpo by three touchdowns, they beat us by six touchdowns. We said last year people are going to get us but they better get us now because we're going to get this thing turned around at some point. Especially with our schedule -- Lowell, that was almost a (4A) semistate team, Andrean was a (2A) state champion, Merrillville went to (6A) semistate. That's your first three games. We need we had to be ready coming out of the box and the kids were up to the challenge."
Johnson, working behind an experienced offensive line, has been guided the attack, accounting for over 1,700 total yards. He has connected with Buzea, well known for his hard he is on his quarterbacks, and the kid who looked like an athlete playing the position two years ago is leaps and bounds better, a natural runner and a developing passer.
"He holds me to a high standard," Johnson said. "He expects a lot of me. I love that. I like being pushed. No one holds themselves to a higher standard than me. Whenever I screw up, he's always there to tell me, come on, even at practice. It helps you at tough times. We can be up 40 points and he's still chewing us out. It's always getting better. I think that's what makes our team continue to grow every single week. The thing that stands out the most about him to me is how competitive he is, even going through his cancer and beating that. Nothing brings him down. He's a blessing."
Dual threat quarterback JJ Johnson has guided Crown Point to a 7-0 start this season. The Bulldogs senior has accounted for over 1,700 yards of offense. Photo by Mike Kellems
Running back Eli Tiawhan, a 6-foot-1, 215-pound 'horse,' was injured in week three and while he's expected to return within the next few weeks, Johnson has had to carry an even bigger portion of the offense in his absence.
"All those running backs are sophomores," Buzea said.
CP has battered and bruised defenses most of the season, but Johnson showed how he can spin it, too, throwing for 202 yards to go with four rushing touchdowns in one half Friday.
"This week, we said, we've got to work on our pass game," Buzea said. "Obviously, we schemed some guys wide open for him, but he's still able to get it where it's supposed to be. He'd probably tell you he missed two or three that needed to be hit. We've been pounding and pounding, we decided, let's take it easy on our guys up front, let them work on some pass protection."
One of the Bulldogs' newer toys is 6-1, 200-pound freshman tight end Trevor Gibbs, a converted linebacker who rumbled through the La Porte secondary for 123 yards and a TD on four catches.
"He's athletic," Buzea said. "We can teach him on the run and he's caught on pretty well."
Johnson's talent and Buzea's play calling acumen have proven him to be a potent combination.
"He's like fine wine," Johnson said. "I love the way coach mixes it up. He's the best. I never even know what he's going to call. I think it keeps defenses off balance, and it gives me a lot of open space to run the ball. We can't run the ball on every team, especially as you go on a playoff run. You've got to mix it up and I'm glad we got a chance to work on those type of things. I'd like to think I can throw the ball as well as anybody else in the DAC."
While Buzea keeps his team grounded in the moment, Johnson's excited to see where it could all go.
"He said we're five-sevenths done, we've got two more parts of the (conference) equation to get done," he said. "Obviously, the goal is to keep winning. If this team keeps putting in the work, sacrificing like we're doing, the sky's the limit."
Craig Buzea has Crown Point sitting at 7-0 in his second season as the Bulldogs head coach. Photo by Mike Kellems