How Jordan Johnson went from unknown to Notre Dame's highest-ranked WR signee ever

Carter Karels
South Bend Tribune

SAN ANTONIO — None of Notre Dame’s signees out of the 2020 class had a more disappointing first trip to South Bend than Jordan Johnson.

Though the Irish ranked Johnson atop their priorities, his recruitment seemed doomed from that moment he stepped on campus in March of 2018.

“It was a pretty cold day,” Johnson said. “My mom and I were both sick. It was pretty dry on the campus. Nobody was on the campus. We didn’t get to really experience much. Being sick wasn’t a plus.”

Had the Irish not allotted enough time to recover, they would never have landed their highest-ranked wide receiver signee ever, per Rivals, in Johnson. By extending a scholarship offer that January, Notre Dame became one of the first major programs on Johnson’s radar.

The persistent pursuit that followed from former offensive coordinator Chip Long and wide receivers coach DelVaughn Alexander eventually paid off. Johnson surprised many, including running back and friend Kyren Williams, when pledging to the Irish during his April official visit. He had another trip planned after Notre Dame and intended to announce his decision later that summer.

“Usually when kids are offered early in their recruiting process, those early offers are more likely to get visited,” said Robert Steeples, Johnson’s head football coach at De Smet Jesuit in St. Louis. “That also gave him time for a second and third visit.

“By them seeing Jordan, I think he really respected that they knew what they wanted, they saw it in him and didn’t hesitate to go and extend a scholarship offer and let him know that.”

Once news surfaced that Long and Notre Dame parted ways, the Irish coaching staff circled back with Johnson to reaffirm his status. Alexander assured Johnson his projected role as a versatile receiver and the offense schematically would remain the same.

The Irish see the 6-foot-2, 185-pound Johnson as a plug-and-play receiver who could rotate behind projected starters Braden Lenzy and Kevin Austin Jr. on the outside in 2020. After fate nearly played spoiler more than once, now nothing will keep Johnson from trying to meet those expectations when coming to Notre Dame in June.

“I would love to come in and play right away as much as I can,” Johnson said. “But if not, my role is to make whoever is in front of me better and do my best to put myself in a better position when I can.”

That answer may sound like the oft-used vanilla response in football referred to as coach speak. Understanding how Johnson helped turn around De Smet’s football program, though, adds credibility to those words.

A changer of culture

Becoming the centerpiece of one of the more remarkable rebuilds in recent Missouri high school football history meant Johnson not being the centerpiece.

Reviving De Smet called for Johnson to embrace a role that involved him doing the dirty work for three featured running backs bound for Division I football: Taj Butts, Rico Barfield and Darez Snider.

Steeples returned to DeSmet, his alma mater, after playing for Memphis, Missouri and in the NFL and endured a two-win season in year one. Johnson transferred to De Smet a semester later from nearby Marquette High without much varsity football experience. He had mostly played special teams in limited fashion.

Then Johnson started his three-year climb, beginning with a one-win season his sophomore year and ending with a 14-0 senior campaign capped by a state title.

“That’s the biggest thing he had an impact on: our culture,” Steeples said. “He was kind of an extension of myself. As a head coach, you are always looking for guys who share your vision and can carry it out. He was one of those people.

“Him being able to make working hard, buying in, taking advantage of every rep — that started to become infectious to his teammates.”

Count wide receiver Ra’Shod Smith-Harvey as one of those teammates. One of his longest touchdowns this season came as a result of Johnson’s willingness to be the decoy. Johnson even suggested the play-call.

During a timeout in De Smet’s Sept. 6 home game against Rock Bridge, Johnson alerted offensive coordinator John Pukala about a weakness in the defense’s coverage. Johnson wanted to keep the cornerback occupied on a stop route. That way the inside receiver, Smith-Harvey, would burn the safety, who had been operating one-on-one in tight quarters. Johnson working in the flat would prevent any possible help over the top.

The play worked to perfection, and Smith-Harvey’s 38-yard score highlighted De Smet’s 50-7 win. The coaching staff continued listening to Johnson from that moment on.

“There’s other times he’d be like, ‘Hey, run the ball my way and I’ll block for you,’” Steeples said. “Or, ‘Hey, they are putting three guys over here. Run the ball away from me.’”

Johnson once texted Steeples at midnight on a Saturday, pleading for more inclusion on the scout team comprising backups to help prepare De Smet’s cornerbacks for their tough upcoming matchup. Catching roughly 300 passes the night before games, in addition to practice, became a routine for Johnson.

The 29 catches for 587 yards and nine touchdowns hardly illustrated Johnson’s full impact as a senior. His leadership helped set the standard for De Smet.

Johnson will soon become that unproven fresh face in the locker room again. But considering none of Notre Dame’s returning receivers caught more than 11 passes this past season, opportunity awaits for Johnson.

“We talk about his selflessness,” Steeples said, “and I think that’s an awesome trait about him. But what I don’t want to be lost is just how dynamic he is with the ball in his hands.”

More than selfless

Steeples didn’t mince words when discussing how his offense underutilized Johnson as a pass catcher at times.

“He’s not a (expletive) tight end out there just blocking,” Steeples said emphatically. “That kid deserves the ball in his hands.”

Johnson recorded more than three catches in only four games. He never garnered a 100-yard receiving performance. But 13 of De Smet’s 14 wins were by at least 15 points. The Spartans turned their run-heavy offense into a run-only offense in most second halves this season.

“I really had no choice to be honest,” Johnson said. “Toward the end, I’m not going to lie, I kind of wanted the ball. I wanted to be able to do what I’m able to do. But I did what I could to make it fun.”

Josh Helmholdt, Rivals’ Midwest recruiting analyst, played a role in bumping Johnson to five-star status after watching him numerous times. 247Sports considers Johnson as a four-star receiver, ranking him No. 12 at the position and No. 63 overall while Rivals pegs him at No. 3 and No. 25, respectively.

Helmholdt knows stats and a stopwatch can’t entirely describe what Johnson brings.

“He’s well ahead of the curve developmentally — both physically and fundamentally,” Helmholdt said. “So I expect him to be able to contribute right away year one assuming he has that ability.”

“Wide receiver is one of those positions that has the shortest learning curve, so you see a lot of freshmen playing right away in year one. Jordan has those tools to be able to step into the receiving corps and immediately be an asset for the offense.”

Other recruiting analysts depict Johnson as a receiver with good but not overwhelming speed that’s compensated by his elite change of direction abilities and lack of glaring weaknesses.

Deceleration, short-area burst and overall lateral quickness were among the elite qualities Johnson displayed in practice so far in preparation for this week’s the All-American Bowl, an all-star game featuring some of the nation’s best high school football players. He especially dominated two one-on-one reps against four-star cornerback Ayden Hector, signed with Stanford.

Offensive tackles Tosh Baker (West) and Michael Carmody (East), tight end Michael Mayer (East) and Johnson (East) are the Irish signees participating in Saturday’s game in San Antonio at the Alamodome. NBC begins the broadcast at 1 p.m. EST.

Look for Johnson to be heavily involved in the rotation for the East squad — a snapshot of what could be for Johnson in year one.

“I think he’s a guy that you can build an offense around. He’s a legitimate weapon,” Steeples said. “He gets in and out of his breaks well and can run any route. You can throw it to him deep, and he will make a play. You can get it out to him quick, and he’s going to make a play.”

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Notre Dame wide receiver signee Jordan Johnson.

WHO: Team East vs. Team West

WHEN: Saturday, 1 p.m. (EST)

WHAT: All-American Bowl

WHERE: Alamodome (72,000); San Antonio