Freshman Ben Johnson and junior Nathan Thornhill have established themselves as important players for the Longhorns thanks to their roles as primary leadoff hitter and Sunday starting pitcher, respectively.
Recognition in Austin for these players started before they ever put on a burnt orange uniform, though, as they both exhibited success as quarterbacks at area high schools before committing to play baseball at Texas.
Johnson was a standout three-year starter at Westwood in Round Rock, where he led the Warriors to three straight playoff appearances. With Johnson under center for the 2009-2011 seasons, Westwood compiled a 22-12 record.
After a productive sophomore season, Johnson broke out during his junior year, throwing for 2,003 yards and 17 touchdowns and rushing for 1,028 yards with 16 scores. He continued his strong play as a senior in 2011 when he threw for 1,437 yards and 15 touchdowns and added 1,212 yards and 16 touchdowns on the ground.
Johnson received considerable interest to play football for a number of schools, including Texas A&M, Texas State, Rice and Georgia Tech. His dream was to play for the Longhorns, however, and he turned his role as star on the Westwood football team into a spot on the Texas baseball roster.
“I always wanted to play a sport at Texas and [baseball] was the best opportunity for me,” Johnson said. “I’m happy I made that decision, best decision of my life.”
Although he decided to focus on baseball, Johnson greatly enjoyed his time playing quarterback and had a number of great moments on the football field.
“It’s something that I’m going to cherish forever,” Johnson said. “It was a great experience being able play with my brother my sophomore year and have a pretty successful junior and senior year. It was pretty nice to make the playoffs three years in a row, especially at a high school not for being a football powerhouse. We kind of turned that around.”
Thornhill, too, had a successful career as a high school quarterback while at Cedar Park. After missing his junior year with a broken knee, Thornhill returned to the field as a senior in 2009 and led the Timberwolves to a 7-4 record.
Leading an option-style offense, Thornhill threw for 873 yards and four scores and ran for 789 yards and 13 touchdowns as a senior. The biggest game of his career came in a 55-45 win over Round Rock, when he threw for 141 yards and three touchdowns and added 190 yards and two touchdowns on the ground.
Thornhill was named Offensive MVP for the district that season and helped lead his team to a District 16-5A title. He considers his time as Cedar Park’s quarterback to be among his greatest experiences.
“I don’t think anything compares to Texas high school 5-A football,” Thornhill said. “Being a quarterback, it’s everything the TV shows like Friday Night Lights portray it to be. It was awesome; I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
Thornhill believes that missing his junior year hurt his chances of being recruited by a big school to play football. That said, Thornhill says that he likely would have still chosen to pitch at Texas and believes that playing football helped equip him to do so.
“I think that high school football has made me the competitor that I am,” Thornhill said. “In football you’re getting hit so you basically either take it and get hurt or fight back. I think that’s what’s helped me be able to pitch here at Texas. There’s a lot of pressure and there’s a lot of pressure in high school football too.“
While Johnson and Thornhill had their share of highlights as high school quarterbacks, both players have been very successful with the Longhorns and believe that their decision to stick with baseball was the right one.