In-state cornerback JoJo Johnson verbally commits to Notre Dame

Carter Karels
South Bend Tribune

JoJo Johnson wasted little time before making the news public.

Two days after landing a scholarship offer from Notre Dame, Johnson announced his verbal commitment to the Irish. Landing the three-star cornerback on Tuesday increased Notre Dame's 2021 recruiting class to 24 pledges.

While the COVID-19 pandemic challenged recruits across the country, Johnson seemed to have all the answers he needed before choosing Notre Dame. He visited campus multiple times prior to the pandemic and was familiar with the Irish coaching staff.

The Merrillville (Ind.) High product had plenty of Notre Dame influences and grew up less than 90 miles from the university. Johnson is the first football recruit from Merrillville High to commit to Notre Dame since five-star running back James Aldridge in the 2006 class.

“Him and his dad are really close when it comes to football, and his dad is a big Notre Dame fan,” said Brad Seiss, Johnson’s head football coach at Merrillville. “So I’m sure as a kid growing up, that was a game he watched with dad. Being as close as we are, they are the top brand around here as far as college football is concerned.”

Irish cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens forging a relationship with Johnson more than a year ago also played a role in his commitment. Mickens served the same coaching position at the University of Cincinnati when the Bearcats offered Johnson in October 2019.

Johnson eventually committed to Cincinnati in May after Mickens left for Notre Dame, but Johnson backed off that commitment in October. He previously pledged to Northern Illinois in March.

“It was interesting talking to the (Cincinnati) coaching staff,” Seiss said. “It was almost like they were fighting where he would have been if they had gotten him, offense or defense.”

Seiss said multiple schools projected the 5-foot-11, 180-pound Johnson at wide receiver and cornerback. Iowa, Michigan State, Purdue and Washington State were the other Power Five programs that offered Johnson.

Following his junior year, Johnson transferred from Hammond (Ind.) Morton. As a senior at Merrillville, Johnson played receiver, cornerback, wildcat quarterback and returned kicks. He caught 47 passes for 878 yards and 10 touchdowns while turning 12 carries into 156 yards and three scores in 12 games this season.

247Sports ranks Johnson as its No. 48 athlete and No. 672 overall player this cycle. 247Sports and Rivals now peg this Notre Dame class No. 8 and No. 10 nationally, respectively.

“When you have a guy that can do what he does,” Seiss said, “it makes him more recruitable. But also on top of that, you figure that once we gets to the collegiate level and focuses on one thing, you probably figure he’s going to get even better because he had to (play multiple positions) when he was playing for us.”

Notre Dame’s coaching staff projects Johnson as a cornerback. They evaluated him at their Irish Invasion recruiting camp in June 2019. He stood out in the camp that also featured Notre Dame freshman receiver Jay Brunelle and Irish commits Cane Berrong, a tight end, and wide receiver Deion Colzie.

With a few more spots in its 2021 class, Notre Dame could add another cornerback or safety this cycle. Cornerback Ceyair Wright and safety Titus-Mokiao-Atimalala will be worth monitoring as they near their decisions. The Irish also are targeting running backs Donovan Edwards and Byron Cardwell, and defensive end Kelvin Gilliam.

Philip Riley, Ryan Barnes and Chance Tucker comprise Notre Dame’s other cornerback pledges in this class. Those three cornerbacks appear to be versatile enough to play safety or nickelback.

Seiss likes how Johnson’s traits should translate at corner. Earlier this month, Johnson helped hold Elkhart receiver and Western Michigan commit Tyren Mason to three catches for nine yards. Merrillville defeated Elkhart 27-24 in an IHSAA Class 6A regional championship.

Johnson's season ended Friday when Merrillville lost 41-23 to Westfield in the semi-state championship.

“He flips his hips, he’s got good closing speed and is physical,” Seiss said. “He’s got a good combination of being smart, physical, being able to cut people off and all the things you need to play at corner, which is a really tough position.”

After Notre Dame offered Johnson, the pandemic hardly deterred him from reaching a decision. But missing out on exposure opportunities made garnering offers and improving his spot in the recruiting rankings more difficult.

There were no in-person evaluations. There were no recruiting camps. There were no track meets to help verify speed. But to Seiss, the versatility and athleticism Johnson flashed in multiple roles showed him he’s capable of being better than advertised.

“You can see that speed jump out on film,” Seiss said. “He can really run. He’s smooth. You never see him get caught. He is always running away from people. He never had a chance with camps this offseason or run track to truly get a verified speed of what he is. But it is one of those things where you can just tell.”

Notre Dame cornerback signee JoJo Johnson, left, made more plays as an offensive weapon than he did on defense as a senior at Merrillville (Ind.) High.