Former five-star WR Jordan Johnson intends to transfer out of Notre Dame
Jordan Johnson's freshman year will end in the next two weeks.
It will also mark the end of his Notre Dame career.
On Monday, the former five-star wide receiver recruit announced that he will be entering his name into the NCAA's transfer portal.
"I am looking for a fresh start and look forward to seeing what is next for me," Johnson wrote at the end of a statement he posted on social media.
The 6-foot-2, 195-pound Johnson enrolled at Notre Dame last summer out of DeSmet Jesuit in St. Louis. He played in just two games as a freshman — South Florida and Boston College — and did not record a catch. He didn’t make a catch in Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game either despite starting for the Blue team.
Rivals rated Johnson as a five-star prospect and ranked him as the No. 5 wide receiver and No. 28 overall in the 2020 class. 247Sports slated Johnson as a four-star recruit, the No. 11 wide receiver and No. 62 overall.
Johnson could remove himself from the transfer portal and stay at Notre Dame much like senior safety Houston Griffith did in January, but that seems unlikely given Johnson’s statement and how coveted he may be as a transfer candidate with at least four years of eligibility remaining.
The high expectations for Johnson, which were created by his five-star status and All-American Bowl selection, resulted in more discussion than production in his one year with the Irish. The brake-pumping from Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly started in September when a reporter asked about Johnson’s ability to make an impact on the offense in 2020.
“Physically, he’s coming along quite well,” Kelly said Sept. 14, two days after the season opener against Duke. “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.”
Johnson saw game action for the first time later that week in ND’s blowout victory over South Florida. That appearance was marred by Johnson being flagged for a personal foul penalty after some late shoves at a player he took to the ground with a block. The Irish were leading 45-0 in the fourth quarter at the time.
The highlight of Johnson’s season may have come in October when quarterback Ian Book praised Johnson when asked about the freshman wide receiver group.
"Today's practice was one of the best Tuesdays we've had,” Book said Oct. 27, “and Jordan Johnson was doing an unbelievable job. He took pride in being up there and knowing the plays for this week and he had some unbelievable catches. That's what we need to see.”
The Irish played at Georgia Tech that weekend, but Johnson didn’t see any playing time.
“He had been making some progress in how he was dealing with the transition to college,” Kelly said two days before the Georgia Tech game. “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.”
Johnson played in his last game two weeks later at Boston College. He entered the game in the first half as part of the wide receiver rotation, but he wasn’t targeted with a pass.
After a quiet freshman season, Johnson didn’t have to look far to find optimism for a breakout sophomore season. Fellow St. Louis product Kyren Williams, who Johnson has known since his earliest days playing football as a child, went from freshman afterthought in 2019 to ACC Rookie of the Year in 2020 as Notre Dame’s starting running back.
“I look at him as like a little brother,” Williams said last month. “I’m always over there trying to help him get to where he wants to be. He’s had a great spring. He has to keep working on the little details of everything. That just comes with being a wide receiver and football player.
“You’re never going to be perfect. He knows that he has to keep working and come fall camp that it’s time for him to really excel and take off and get to where he wants to be as a player.”
Johnson’s lack of playing time as a freshman was a bit unusual for five-star recruits at Notre Dame in the Brian Kelly era. Of the 13 Notre Dame enrollees who received five-star ratings from either Rivals or 247Sports since Kelly has been coaching the Irish, only three didn’t play at all as freshmen: quarterback Gunner Kiel (2012), offensive lineman Quenton Nelson (2014) and offensive lineman Tommy Kraemer (2016).
Eight of those five-star recruits played in at least nine games as freshmen. Running back Greg Bryant (2013) only played in three games.
Jerry Stanfield, who has trained both Johnson and Williams in St. Louis, offered insight into how both of them dealt with freshman disappointments.
“They get a little eager to set expectations that are probably not as realistic as they should be,” Stanfield said in February. “That's not to diminish their talent. It’s the transitional piece that you have to go through. For Jordan probably more than Kyren, it was also the transition of school as well as the whole structure of everything that you go through as a college student-athlete.”
In April, Kelly said Johnson made strides academically.
“What I'm most impressed with Jordan is what he's doing in the classroom right now,” Kelly said April 3. “He's really turned the corner there. And you can start to see that confidence showing itself on the football field too.”
Both Kelly and Rees alluded to Johnson missing a couple practices due to a minor injury later in April. He ended the spring with a stat-less performance in the Blue-Gold Game. Quarterback Drew Pyne threw his way near the end zone late in the first quarter, but Johnson didn’t have much of a chance at hauling in the high pass with cornerback Ramon Henderson in tight coverage.
Later in the second quarter, Notre Dame appeared to have a wide receiver screen called for Johnson, but he was blocking instead of waiting for the football to be thrown his way. Pyne ran it himself after looking Johnson’s way. Johnson reacted by clapping his hands and hitting his helmet as if he realized the mistake he made.
The wide receiver competition was always going to be one of Notre Dame’s most intriguing story lines this offseason with or without Johnson. Notre Dame’s four senior wide receivers — Kevin Austin Jr., Braden Lenzy, Lawrence Keys III and Joe Wilkins Jr. — have struggled to stay healthy or provide consistent production throughout their careers. They’re being asked to step up alongside graduate senior Avery Davis.
Behind them, the Irish are left with five scholarship receivers this fall: sophomores Xavier Watts and Jay Brunelle and freshmen Lorenzo Styles Jr., Deion Colzie and Jayden Thomas. Colzie and Thomas, who both received four-star ratings from Rivals, are scheduled to join the team in June. Styles, also a four-star recruit, enrolled early and caught two passes for nine yards Saturday.
The list of potential transfer destinations for Johnson should be lengthy. Since his transfer announcement Monday morning, Johnson’s recent Twitter followers included many college football coaches like Missouri head coach Eliah Drinkwitz, Illinois head coach Bret Bielema, Michigan State head coach Mel Tucker and wide receivers coaches from Penn State, Oregon and Tennessee. Johnson’s offer list out of high school included Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Ohio State and several others.
Johnson, who has been described as a team player by people who know him, specifically thanked Kelly, offensive coordinator Tommy Rees, wide receivers coach Del Alexander and director of football performance Matt Balis in his transfer portal announcement.
“I am grateful for all that I have learned both academically and on the football field,” Johnson wrote. “I want to give a special shout out to my teammates. You are my brothers for life and the relationships we built are very important to me.”