Junior shows big-play potential for Wonders

A.L. Brown football coach Mike Newsome was so impressed by Keeon Johnson as a physical specimen that he started recommending the junior receiver to college recruiters before he ever saw him catch a pass.

A muscular and fast 6-3, 190-pounder, Johnson is very much the prototypical wide receiver. He can outrun and out-leap just about any defender who challenges him.

With 31 catches for 679 yards and nine touchdowns through 13 games, Johnson's statistics may be deceptively low.

But remember two things before rushing to judgment: The Wonders are traditionally a running team, and numerous blowout victories have pushed them to keep the ball conservatively on the ground in the second half of many of those games.

As former coach Ron Massey's ground attack was leading the Wonders to 12 victories and the third round of the 3AA state playoffs last year, Johnson had a steady sophomore season. He averaged two catches a game (28 total) for 406 yards and six touchdowns.

His big play potential may have been foreshadowed in Kannapolis' season-ending playoff loss to Charlotte Catholic last year. Though Brown was clobbered 45-7, Johnson had six catches and a touchdown for 104 yards - about one-fourth of his season's yardage production.

Understanding that his role as a blocker is very important to the running game, Johnson was excited about the likelihood of a more wide-open offense on the horizon under Newsome.

Still, the new regime, with a new quarterback, senior Brandon Eppinger, took a while to rev up. The Wonders completed only six passes in their first two games.

It was a wet Friday night Sept. 2 when things opened up for Johnson. Against Rocky River, Eppinger completed 14 of 19 passes for 219 yards. Both of his touchdown throws, and five other completions, went to Johnson, who had 112 yards.

"At first, he was little frustrated," said Newsome. "People thought (Newsome) throws the ball around so much in his offense. But we ran at it first because we were a little out of synch. Now he's reaping the benefits of the offense. The quarterback is throwing it more, and he's involved more."

The first good impression the South Piedmont Conference got of him was at Mount Pleasant. Until then, Kannapolis had dominated its three SPC opponents 169-0. Against the Tigers, Johnson's 41-yard touchdown catch clinched a 33-17 victory. Overall, he caught three passes for 74 yards.

Before the Wonders' next game, against Hickory Ridge, Newsome thought his receiving corps was in a bit of a funk, so he pulled them together at a practice. He told them how Hall of Fame receiver Jerry Rice used to shake his hands on the sideline before a game to stretch them out. The Wonders receivers started to do the same thing.

Against Hickory Ridge, Johnson caught six passes for 138 yards and three touchdowns, all in the first half, as Eppinger completed all 10 of his attempts, in a 47-0 win.

Johnson's biggest reception of the season may have come in the regular-season finale against rival Concord.

With the Spiders closing in on the scoreboard, Johnson leaped over two defenders and hauled in a wobbly pass just inside the goal line with 21.6 seconds left in the first half. The touchdown ended up being the deciding points in the Wonders' 31-26 victory.

"It was supposed to be play-action," said Johnson. "Everyone else blocks; I ran a post route. I didn't know there was another safety over there. I adjusted and went back for the ball and tried to catch it at its highest point."

Potential for big plays like that one and his size are what has college coaches excited. Newsome says Johnson has received verbal scholarship offers from N.C. State, UNC, Wake Forest and East Carolina.