In-state cornerback recruit Theran Johnson's rise catching Notre Dame's attention

Carter Karels
South Bend Tribune

The third start of Theran Johnson’s high school career was one of nightmares.

As a sophomore at 5-foot-9, 160 pounds, the undersized Johnson had to cover a towering 6-1, 200-pound wide receiver in a game with high stakes. North Central faced its longtime rival across town in Indianapolis who ranked No. 1 in Class 6A: Warren Central. Both teams were undefeated.

How that receiver terrorized Johnson played a large part in Warren Central dismantling North Central 58-27. That receiver won the state title later that season and finished the 2019 cycle as a four-star recruit. That receiver signed with Purdue and claimed Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors last season.

That receiver was David Bell.

“That was rough,” said Johnson, a three-star cornerback in the 2021 recruiting class. “I remember everything from that game. That was a big learning experience.”

Johnson has come a long way since being torched that night for 230 yards and three touchdowns on 10 catches. Only until recently did his progress begin to show and pay dividends, however. This September has proven to be the most eventful month of Johnson’s otherwise tame recruitment.

Northwestern offered Johnson a scholarship during his unofficial visit on March 12. He verbally committed to the Wildcats on May 3. The COVID-19 pandemic limited Johnson’s opportunities to accrue more offers and improve his spot in the recruiting rankings by visiting campuses and impressing at recruiting camps.

Then Johnson flashed on film after starting his senior season last month. He’s tallied 20 tackles, one interception and two pass breakups through five games. He began playing more wide receiver and has recorded 22 catches for 332 yards and four touchdowns.

The Notre Dame coaching staff liked what they saw and became the second Power Five program to offer Johnson last Tuesday. At the time, Notre Dame appeared to be taking a chance on Johnson. He ranked as 247Sports’ No. 98 cornerback and No. 1,114 overall player in the class. Johnson has since significantly elevated in the rankings. He’s now No. 41 at that position and No. 543 overall. Rivals pegs Johnson as its No. 68 cornerback.

Cincinnati, Miami (Ohio), Ball State and Central Michigan are among Johnson’s other offers.

“Playing on the offensive side has really opened a lot of people’s eyes about how versatile I am,” Johnson said. “I can play a lot of different positions. I can play receiver, slot, safety, corner. That plays a big part in it, too. Just playing multiple positions and the confidence I built up over this summer has played a big part.”

The Irish project Johnson at corner but are open to him playing other positions. Their interest dates back to when defensive line coach Mike Elston watched Johnson practice in the spring of 2019. He marked him down as a player to watch.

North Central head football coach Kyle O’Shea said he heard from special teams coordinator Brian Polian earlier this month. Polian, Elston and defensive coordinator Clark Lea have since been involved with Johnson’s recruitment.

“As we were talking, he pulled up his film,” said O’Shea about his initial conversation with Polian about Johnson. “First thing Brian said was, ‘Damn, he’s fast.’ I said, ‘Yeah. He is.’ Then after a couple more he started to say, ‘He’s pretty athletic, too.’”

With 18 verbal commits in its 2021 class, Notre Dame is looking to add at least two more defensive backs. The Irish have landed pledges from safety Justin Walters and cornerbacks Philip Riley, Chance Tucker and Ryan Barnes.

O’Shea said Johnson brings 4.42 40-yard dash speed at 6-0, 182 pounds. He will enter his third season as a starter for North Central’s basketball team and has shown short-area quickness and athleticism on the hardwood.

“Very good ball skills, and he will hit you,” O’Shea said. “A lot of times you get a corner, and they just like to play soft and not like to hit people. No, Theran will hit you.”

Whether Johnson will flip his commitment to the Irish remains to be seen. The coaching staff is still in the early stages of his recruitment. Johnson said he still needs to learn more about Notre Dame’s football program and campus life. He may even visit Notre Dame soon.

With the recruiting dead period extended through Jan. 1, Johnson will not be able to take an official or unofficial visit to campus. He can’t meet with academic advisors, tour facilities or be in the company of official team personnel while on campus.

Northwestern and Notre Dame are the only two programs Johnson is communicating with at the moment. He said he’s keeping an honest dialogue open with both schools about his status.

“It has the same prestigiousness as Northwestern, and the academics are really well known,” Johnson said about Notre Dame. “But the difference there is the football. Football is a really big priority at Notre Dame. They win. It’s all in their record. That’s just the big difference. And the amount of people that they send to the NFL.”

North Central hired O’Shea in 2017 after winning just one game in three seasons. O’Shea credits Johnson as a player who helped North Central ditch its label as a basketball-only school. The Panthers went 3-7 in O’Shea’s first season. Then they went 9-3 in 2018 and captured a share of the Metropolitan Interscholastic Conference title. North Central’s football program had never won a conference title.

That 2018 season included Johnson’s unpleasant experience against Bell. He looks back on that game as a critical point for his development. The Irish hope his rise since then is far from over. And that his potential is more than what his recruiting ranking and offer list suggest.

“I believe in myself,” Johnson said. “I feel like if I went to these camps, there’s no doubt in my mind that I would have (landed) a lot of offers and probably be a four-star (recruit) right now. But you can’t really do anything about it, so you just have to keep on moving forward.”

Indianapolis North Central cornerback Theran Johnson (2) carries the ball on Nov. 1, 2019.