Jordan Johnson didn’t need to look far to find a paragon for what he can become.
Johnson, who Rivals ranked as a five-star wide receiver in the 2020 recruiting class, saw firsthand how Notre Dame running back Kyren Williams rebounded from a freshman season spent mostly on the sideline, elevated his game in the offseason and became the ACC Rookie of the Year.
Johnson will have the same opportunity in his 2021 sophomore season that his teammate, friend and training partner had last season.
“Kyren was a big, instrumental piece in helping Jordan get through the frustrations this past season, because of what he also experienced,” said Jerry Stanfield, who has worked with both players at Excel 360 Football Training in St. Louis.
“They’ve known each other for a long time. They were able to have some really good conversations. (Johnson) looks up to Kyren kind of as a mentor. It always helps when you have someone there that you trust. They can share their personal experiences of what they went through.”
Williams didn’t do much in his freshman season at Notre Dame. After dropping a pass in the 2019 season opener at Louisville, Williams finished the year having played in just four games and recording just four carries for 28 yards. One season later, Williams became Notre Dame’s leading rusher (211 carries for 1,125 yards and 13 touchdowns) and the focal point of the Irish offense.
Johnson’s potential didn’t materialize as a freshman either. He played in only two games — South Florida and Boston College — and didn’t record a statistic last season. But because the 6-foot-2, 195-pound Johnson came to Notre Dame with the five-star tag, he became a recurring topic of discussion during press conferences and on message boards.
“Physically, he’s coming along quite well,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said of Johnson on Sept. 14. “He’s still finding himself as a student-athlete here. There’s a lot on his plate.
“He’s getting better. He had a really good week last week with his traits. We saw some progress there.
“This isn’t just about football. He has football talent. We have to continue to work on his attention to detail and his focus. We’re getting better there. As those traits continue to develop, there are good prospects down the road for Jordan.”
A month later, Kelly was asked again about Johnson. At that point, Johnson’s only game appearance came late in the 52-0 blowout win over USF. Johnson was flagged with a personal foul penalty for some late shoves at a player he took to the ground with a block.
“Jordan’s a really good player,” Kelly said. “The problem Jordan has is he has to climb over some veteran players and guys who are ascending late in their careers. Javon McKinley is playing his best football late in his career. Ben Skowronek comes in as a grad transfer. Some guys with veteran experience are really ascending and playing really well.
“In other years, he’s a guy who probably would have a chance to be on the field. He’s going to be a really good football player. He just needs to continue to work, continue to do the right things both on and off the field and he’ll get his chance and he’ll get his time here at Notre Dame.”
Two weeks later, quarterback Ian Book mentioned that Johnson was working with the first-team offense and “doing an unbelievable job” and making “some unbelievable catches.” Naturally, Kelly was asked about Johnson two days later.
“He had been making some progress in how he was dealing with the transition to college,” Kelly said. “This has never been an issue of lack of ability. We knew of Jordan’s ability. There are other things that are important here at the university, and we all know that. He’s been focused heavily on making the transition.
“The things that are really difficult are in the classroom, and he’s made some progress, enough that we brought him up and he’s a talented player.
“In the rotation? We’ll kind of have to see how that goes. We all see that he has the skill set. Now we’ll have to kind of build that as we go forward.”
Johnson didn’t play that week against Georgia Tech. Nor the Clemson game the following week. His unbelievable catches were reserved for practices.
Greg Flammang of UHND.com caught the moment and shared the video on Twitter. As Book broke loose for a 28-yard touchdown run in the second quarter of Notre Dame’s 45-21 victory over Syracuse on Dec. 5, Johnson was intently watching from the sideline and threw his hand in the air to celebrate as Book’s path to the end zone became clear.
Flammang used the video to infer that Johnson was engaged in what his teammates were doing. Rather than sulking at the end of a regular season that didn’t go Johnson’s way individually, he was cheering on his teammates.
Williams retweeted the video and added Johnson’s Twitter handle to his tweet with the following message: “Keep trusting it, time will only tell.”
In a college football landscape that allows impatient players to reach for the transfer portal with ease, Johnson hasn’t publicly shown signs of wanting to flee Notre Dame. Following Notre Dame’s loss to Alabama in the College Football Playoff semifinal, Johnson even defended fellow wide receiver Avery Davis after he received flak from an apparent Irish fan.
“Avery Davis is broke can we please see @jjohnsonj1,” the fan wrote.
Johnson, @jjohnsonj1 on Twitter, responded strongly: “Bra watch ya mouth , don’t even know what that man go through on a daily , u don’t like it stop watchin.”
As much as Johnson may have wanted to play more as a freshman, he clearly didn’t want to diminish the hard work of his teammates.
“He’s a good kid,” Stanfield said. “He’s a fun kid. He’s a team player.”
Johnson’s apparent team-first mindset is shared with Williams, who was credited by his teammates for providing energy to the offense this past season. Johnson and Williams have a lot in common, even if public perception of them as recruits and freshmen wasn’t quite the same.
Williams was a prolific star at St. John Vianney in Kirkwood, Mo. He rushed 179 times for 2,035 yards and 26 touchdowns in his senior season. He caught 55 passes for 725 yards and 10 touchdowns. He even tallied 92 tackles and eight interceptions on defense in addition to scoring four touchdowns on defense and special teams.
Yet Williams finished his high school career rated as a three-star recruit by Rivals and ranked as the No. 34 athlete — a designation given to recruits with multiple position projections. 247Sports saw Williams future more clearly with a four-star rating as the No. 13 running back in the 2019 class.
Johnson didn’t put up nearly as impressive numbers as a senior at DeSmet Jesuit in St. Louis. He totaled 29 catches for 587 yards and nine touchdowns in 11 games as a senior — fairly pedestrian numbers for a five-star recruit. Rivals ranked him as the No. 5 wide receiver and No. 28 overall in the 2020 class. 247Sports slated him as the No. 11 wide receiver and No. 62 overall.
The only wide receiver to sign with Notre Dame with a higher ranking from Rivals is Michael Floyd (No. 27 overall in the 2008 class). That’s part of the reason Kelly was repeatedly asked about Johnson during his quiet freshman season yet rarely questioned about Williams the year prior.
While fellow freshmen Michael Mayer and Chris Tyree were impacting Notre Dame’s offense at tight end and running back, respectively, Johnson was nowhere to be found. If Johnson responds next season the way Williams did, all will likely be forgotten.
“His mindset was that he wanted to come in and contribute right away,” Stanfield said of Johnson. “He realized that when he got there with the COVID stuff that it was going to be challenging and things weren’t as easy as he thought they were going to be making the transition from high school to college. He was really hard on himself because there were some things and areas that he realized he needed to improve on.
“Those were the things we talked about. Some of that process is a normal process — that transition from high school to college. Especially with him coming in there being rated as high as he was, he probably put a little too much on himself. Trying to get him to understand it’s good to have high expectations, but they have to be realistic expectations.”
Johnson finding even a small role as a freshman was a realistic expectation given the history of five-star recruits at Notre Dame. Since Rivals (2002) and 247Sports (2010) started rating prospects, 21 Notre Dame freshmen were ranked as five-star recruits by at least one of those recruiting services. Only four played in fewer games than Johnson’s two as freshmen: quarterbacks Dayne Crist (2008) and Gunner Kiel (2012), and offensive linemen Quenton Nelson (2014) and Tommy Kraemer (2016). Those four didn’t play in any games.
Given the expectations for young quarterbacks and offensive linemen, the fact that Crist, Kiel, Nelson and Kraemer didn’t play as freshmen wasn’t terribly surprising. And given Kelly’s track record with eventual NFL Draft picks at wide receiver, Johnson’s lack of impact as a freshman shouldn’t be terribly surprising either.
Five wide receivers who spent their entire college careers at Notre Dame under Kelly have been drafted to date: T.J. Jones, Will Fuller, Equanimeous St. Brown, Miles Boykin and Chase Claypool. Only Jones, who played as a freshman in Kelly’s first season with the Irish in 2010, made a significant impact on offense with 23 catches for 306 yards and three touchdowns in 12 games.
The other four — Fuller (6 catches), St. Brown (1), Boykin (0) and Claypool (6) — combined for 13 receptions, 249 receiving yards and one touchdown reception as freshmen.
While Johnson’s freshman season can be viewed as both an anomaly and a trend, how he grows from the experience will determine his long-term success.
“He learned that the attention to detail and little things matter,” Stanfield said. “Making the transition from the high school to college level, there are certain things because of your athletic ability, you have the ability to get away with. Once you get to college, some of those things could be the difference between playing and not playing.
“He realizes that, ‘I have to really start paying attention to details, better understand my playbook, better understand how to prepare as a college player.’”
Stanfield believes Johnson’s combination of size, speed and natural ability will allow Johnson to become a big-time player once he gets comfortable with all that is being asked of him at Notre Dame. Like it did for Williams last season, that could become true for Johnson as a sophomore too.
“Jordan understands more than anyone the areas that he has to improve on,” Stanfield said. “With this offseason, the winter workouts, spring ball and then being able to come home and work as well, you’re going to see a guy mold into the kind of player that we all believe he can be.
“He has the capability of being a true superstar. He will become that player. He’s going to be a guy who is going to help and contribute to the program this year and beyond.”