Notre Dame signee JoJo Johnson can start to tap into potential with full-time focus at cornerback

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

The first defensive play in JoJo Johnson’s senior highlight reel doesn’t come until two minutes and 46 seconds into the video.

That’s not too surprising for the Merrillville (Ind.) High standout who was named Offensive Player of the Year by both The Times of Northwest Indiana and the Post-Tribune. But it might be a bit worrisome for a three-star recruit that signed with Notre Dame to play cornerback.

Only without the proper context.

“In high school football, people figured out, ‘Hey, we better not throw it this guy’s way,’” said Merrillville head coach Brad Seiss. “For us as a senior, he wasn’t as impactful with plays made on the defensive side, but the fact that literally half the field was shut down because people were that scared of him was the value that he brought to us defensively.”

The rest of Johnson’s highlight reel includes clips of him making tackles and shutting down passes thrown his way, but his statistical impact on defense was limited. He totaled just 17 tackles and seven pass breakups.

The 5-foot-11, 185-pound Johnson was much busier as a playmaker on offense and special teams. He caught 47 passes for 878 yards and 10 touchdowns, rushed 12 times for 156 yards and three touchdowns and returned one kickoff for a touchdown.

“He’s so talented that you kind of asked him to do everything as a high school football player,” Seiss said. “But now, once he gets to Notre Dame and really focuses on being a corner, the sky’s the limit for him.”

Johnson has been preparing for the transition since his senior season ended with a 41-23 loss to Westfield in a Class 6A semistate game. Two days later, Notre Dame offered the former Northern Illinois and Cincinnati commit. Two days after that, Johnson gave the Irish his verbal commitment.

Johnson became the fourth cornerback in Notre Dame’s 2021 recruiting class after Ryan Barnes, Chance Tucker and Philip Riley. Both Barnes and Riley enrolled at Notre Dame in February.

Now he’s preparing to play for cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens and defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman, two men he started relationships with while being recruited by Cincinnati.

“With the coverage they run and the technique they use, it’s good for my ability and what I do,” Johnson said. “There’s nothing that I’m foreign to. That’s why I feel like they can help me grow, especially being a big-time corner.”

The recruiting industry might not be as sold on Johnson. 247Sports couldn’t settle on a position projection for Johnson, so it slated him as the No. 48 athlete in 2021 class. Rivals rated him as a three-star cornerback but didn’t include him on its list of the top 75 cornerbacks in the country.

In Indiana alone, Johnson was ranked as the No. 13 and No. 15 overall prospect in the 2021 class by Rivals and 247Sports, respectively. The analyst skepticism on Johnson was paired with an offer list that included only five Power 5 schools: Washington State, Purdue, Michigan State, Iowa and Notre Dame.

That offer list might have looked different if not for the COVID-19 pandemic. Johnson transferred from Hammond Morton, which competes at the Class 4A level in football, following his junior season to finish his high school career at Merrillville, which competes in Class 6A, the highest classification. Johnson grew up in Merrillville, but attended Morton because his father, Henry, was the football team’s defensive coordinator.

Johnson planned to start his Merrillville athletic career last spring on the track team to post times for college football coaches interested in verifying his speed. Johnson said the last time he ran a 40-yard dash, it was in the 4.4-second range.

“I think his recruiting would have picked up if it would have been normal times,” Seiss said, “because people would have come to track meets, saw him and we would have had a time to give them. That was the big question people had.”

Johnson opted to not run track this spring. Instead he remains focused on finishing his academic career strong and preparing his body to join the Irish in June.

“He’s always been kind of a gym rat,” Seiss said. “Whether it’s training in the weight room or working on his speed and agility, he’s always been that guy ever since I’ve known him in middle school.”

Johnson made a quick transition at Merrillville as a do-it-all star. Some of the best freshman cornerbacks of the last decade at Notre Dame — like KeiVarae Russell, Julian Love and Clarence Lewis — were offensive playmakers in high school too.

That level of play might be a lot to ask of Johnson, but he wants to compete for early playing time.

“I don’t think it’s going to be a big change because I have a lot of reps at and I have a lot of experience playing it,” Johnson said.

Those reps won’t be split as a wide receiver or wildcat quarterback either.

“When he puts 100 percent of his time focused on a position,” Seiss said, “it’s going to be really exciting to see how much he progresses.”

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.