When Kevin Johnson was a freshman in high school he was 5-feet tall and weighed 96 pounds.
Four years later he was 155 pounds and a two-star recruit heading to Wake Forest to play cornerback.
Now he’s one of the top five cornerbacks in this year’s NFL draft.
Johnson worked out in front of scouts from 23 NFL teams at Wake Forest’s pro day Monday, showing off his impressive footwork and range of motion one week after a solid performance at the NFL Scouting Combine.
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Johnson’s fluidity and his 4.52-second 40-yard dash make him a late-first round target after a stellar final two seasons with the Deacons.
“He’s a tall corner who can run. He’s rangy and he can play press. He has the quickest hips of anybody I’ve ever seen,” Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson said.
“(An NFL team is) going to get a guy that loves football, works at it and is a really gifted player. He’s long, he has range, he can run, he’s got ball skills. And he’s just a really good football player and a good human being.”
Barely big enough to not legally require a car seat as a high school freshman in the state of Maryland, Johnson grew with age, and the help of his mother.
Judy Johnson, a Howard-educated nutritionist, fed her son well and often. He ate pastured chicken, grass-fed beef, greens, rice, potatoes and organic vegetables as he added weight in high school.
Current Charlotte 49ers football coach Brad Lambert recruited Johnson to Wake Forest when Lambert was the Deacons’ defensive coordinator, and Johnson made an immediate impact with five starts. But he sat out the next season because of academic ineligibility.
He had three interceptions during each of the next two seasons, and last season teams didn’t throw the ball his way nearly as much, even though Johnson frequently was isolated with the opponent’s top receiver.
“Every game they would take one or two shots at him and then that was it,” Clawson said
His lone interception his senior year came in a home game against Clemson when he made a great break on a Cole Stoudt pass. But perhaps his best game of the season was against eventual playoff semifinalist Florida State.
Johnson allowed two catches during the second quarter and then bottled up his receiver. In the third quarter he broke up a deep pass from Jameis Winston. Seconds later he made a throat-slashing gesture that, had it been caught by the officials, could have warranted an ejection.
“That’s not Kevin. It really isn’t,” Clawson said. “It’s unfortunate that one thing like that happens, but that is not him. He is a good teammate. He’s a really good kid. He’s got a good value system. He’s a hard worker. For anyone to take that one thing and read into it would not be fair to Kevin.”
That came one week after Johnson was ejected for targeting a Louisville receiver. But the kind of physical play tha mightt get flagged at the collegiate level can be lauded in the pros.
“I just want to have the reputation of being a good football player,” Johnson said. “If being a hard hitter is one of those characteristics, I’d love to be considered one of those.”
Johnson could go as early as the late first round, after cornerbacks Trae Waynes and Marcus Peters. But one aspect of his game he must improve – and something he can’t showcase in shorts at pro day – is his tackling.
Johnson is consistently seen on tape shooting gaps and missing the ball carrier or, worse, shying away from tackling running backs. He’s easily blocked by linemen and tight ends who reach the second level of the defense.
“I want to improve on everything in my game, but tackling is definitely a point I want to work on and the technique of getting guys down,” Johnson said.
As he prepares for the draft, Johnson has worked on stationary drills with heavy bags, as well as breaking downhill quickly to get to the point of attack. He also has added 10 pounds to his 6-foot frame and is at 185 pounds, thanks to a diet plan with his trainers that was approved by his mother.
The Carolina Panthers, who had a scout at Monday’s pro day, own the 25th selection in April’s draft and are in need of a cornerback. But defensive coordinator Sean McDermott’s scheme requires cornerbacks who are good tacklers, and the team already has a slight Bené Benwikere at nickel corner.
Plus, general manager Dave Gettleman’s defensive philosophy has been to keep a strong front seven and figure out the defensive backfield later in the draft or in free agency. Johnson said he had only informally met with the Panthers at the combine and didn’t have a pre-draft meeting set up with Carolina yet.
He might not last to the 25th pick anyway. Pittsburgh holds the 22nd selection, and the Steelers sent four representatives – including GM Kevin Colbert – to Wake Forest on Monday.
Steelers representatives spent nearly 15 minutes talking with Johnson’s parents on the sideline, and they also spoke at length with Clawson before he addressed the media.
Johnson could be around in the early-20s as one of this year’s top corners. But if you ask him, he says he’s the best corner.
“To be out there playing on that island you’ve got to be confident,” Johnson said. “That’s just kind of the mentality I’ve had growing up. I’ve always been a smaller guy so just being confident is one of my good characteristics as a player.”
Jones: 704-358-5323; Twitter: @jjones9