Friday, April 12, 2024

Faith, family and focus help C.J Johnson overcome obstacles to earn scholarship

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Featured photo by Khori Williams

Story by Shayne Pickering

When it comes to the current MTSU football team, there may be no better example of new head coach Derek Mason’s ideology than C.J. Johnson. The defensive back has faced his fair share of disadvantages throughout his football career, but those challenges created a chip on his shoulder, establishing the drive and focus he has to outwork any competition he has built up throughout his life.

“We are blue-collar, hard-working folks waiting for an opportunity to be great, so let’s be great.” Mason announced at his introductory press conference in December. 

That chip has created a focus on the details that began at the high school level under Riverdale head coach Will Kriesky. 

“C.J. is a very detail-oriented person, and watching him soak in every last word or demonstration a coach did was impressive,” Kriesky said. “He wanted to make sure he did all the little things the right way. He would never cut corners on a drill or a team period. Doing things the right way was the only way for C.J.” 

Johnson didn’t just impress the coaches. He also caught the attention of his fellow classmates and teammates. 

“C.J. always went above and beyond in high school. From studying plays in the cafeteria to giving that extra effort each and every play on the field.” former high school teammate and current MTSU student Will Voyles said.

One of the main reasons for the chip on Johnson’s shoulder is the fact that he has typically been smaller than a lot of the top competition he faced but never wanted to be counted out. 

“Ever since I was a kid, I was not the biggest guy out there, so my dad really pushed me to focus on outworking everyone else,” Johnson said. “It became evident that I was going to have to let the work speak for myself.”

That focus on detail and drive Johnson possesses did speak for itself, catching the attention of both the outgoing and incoming coaching staff and resulting in the rising redshirt junior being placed on a full scholarship by Derek Mason.

For a local kid who played high school football right down the road from MTSU, the moment validated the advice older players passed down to him and the work he had put in to get to this point. 

“When I got here, I looked up to players like Kyle Kee, Luke Bolger, Chase Cunningham and Yusuf Ali who all started out as walk-ons,” Johnson said. “They said if you keep your head down and work to prove yourself, it’s going to come. “I was used to being the underdog and loved the grind more than the results, so I stayed out the process.”

Johnson has long been the underdog, even before playing at the college level. Despite not necessarily being the most sought-after recruit in high school, he managed to stand out on a Riverdale High School defense littered with top-end Division I talent, earning all-region honors as he grew into one of the leaders on a stout defense that allowed only 14 points per game. 

“From C.J.’s freshman year to his senior year, I really saw him grow to become a student of the game,” Kriesky said. “By his senior year, he would always sit down with the defensive coordinator and study the game plan. He would watch countless hours of film each week. He was our quarterback on defense, making all the calls and checks.”

While Johnson shined on the field, he says that the real lessons he learned from those years were the humility and work ethic he gained playing behind and around that top-end talent.

“All through high school, I played with premier guys like Caleb and Elijah Herring (Tennessee), Javon Nelson (Memphis, MTSU), and Alex Mitchell (UTC), so I was under the radar, but I couldn’t sit and complain,” Johnson said. “Instead, I just had to put my head down and work. I feel like that set me up well for what I’ve experienced at the college level, playing behind guys and having to work my way up.”

That humility has carried over to this upcoming season as the team has begun getting acquainted with the new strength staff in preparation for spring practice. With the new coaching staff in place, Johnson is ready to do anything to help his team win games this fall. 

“I’ll play wherever they need me to,” Johnson said. “I’ve played cornerback, safety and nickel in my time here, so I have experience in all three secondary positions. I’ll be receptive to the coaching and teaching wherever they put me.”

While the story sounds bright and sunny at this point, it was not always that way, as there were some serious storms that came his way. Johnson’s senior year was during the 2020-21 school year, which means it took place right in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to the outbreak interfering with the lives of everyone and every different athletic season, it also heavily limited prospective recruits from going through a lot of the typical recruiting process. 

The recruiting season of modern-era college football is a never-ending cycle that happens year-round. This led to a fair number of players getting overlooked, which has ultimately proved to be the case in Johnson’s situation. The entire prolonged ordeal had a significant effect on Johnson and his mental health, to the point that he was ready to give up on football.

“At first, I wasn’t even going to walk on to MT,” Johnson said. “I was so drained and just done with football. Covid really messed with the recruiting process for me, and I told my dad I just didn’t think football was in it for me past high school at this point, so I was ready to move on.”

As he was working through this life-changing decision, he went back to the man who helped him stand out as a young kid when the odds were stacked against him, his father. 

“My dad told me to give it one year for Middle Tennessee, to just focus on one year, but I told him I didn’t think I was going to do it then,” Johnson said. “Two weeks of discussion later, and signing day had arrived, I decided just to give it a year and signed the letter of intent to come play here. The rest is history.”

“The rest is history” doesn’t exactly tell the whole story for the modest Johnson as he made an immediate impact on the practice field. As a true freshman, he redshirted, but that didn’t prevent him from competing as a scrawny freshman defensive back. Following that season, Johnson took home the Scout Team Defensive Player of the Year award at the end-of-season banquet.

He followed that up by playing in all 13 games on special teams as a redshirt freshman and then cracking into the safety rotation during his redshirt sophomore season last fall.

The prior coaching staff at MTSU was very impressed with Johnson to the extent that they were planning on placing the defensive back on a scholarship for the next season before the head coach was relieved of his duties. 

“Coach (Rick) Stockstill told me after the Louisiana Tech game that I would be put on scholarship after the end of the season.” Johnson said. 

This situation created yet another obstacle for Johnson, as there were no guarantees that the next coaching staff would make him a scholarship player like previously planned. While oftentimes, most players who have seen important game action look to transfer after a university moves on from a beloved coach like Stockstill, especially in this unique situation, Johnson chose to keep the faith that he had made the right decision and chose to stay a Blue Raider. 

“Even before the new staff, there were no thoughts of transferring,” Johnson said. “That’s not my thing. I believe in loyalty, so when I committed to play for Middle Tennessee, I’m going to stay and play at Middle Tennessee.”

That continued to ring true even when the possibility of him picking up the scholarship that was potentially coming his way decreased heavily. The main reason, outside of his loyalty to MTSU, was the new coaching staff led by Derek Mason.

“Coach Mason is a great coach. The first team meeting was the most impactful thing I have ever been a part of. It was a great first impression.” Johnson said.

The other people on the coaching staff he would be learning under impressed him as well. 

“I did my own research into some of the incoming coaches like strength coach (Jamie) Blatnick, defensive coordinator and safeties coach (Brian) Stewart, and secondary coach (Bryce) Lewis,” Johnson said. “I met with them and had conversations about their background and philosophies. They seemed like real, genuine guys who knew what they were talking about. This is going to be a new process for everyone, but the coaches that were brought in are real genuine and bring a great culture.”

Once the new coaching staff arrived on campus, the possibility of an outcome with a scholarship as the end result during this offseason became severely less likely. This was following a significant first recruiting class during the early signing period for a staff looking to fill roster holes created by players transferring and graduating. While at the time it didn’t quite work out the way one would hope for Johnson, Mason told him the plan was for him to be on scholarship if there was a way he could make it happen and stuck to his word the first chance he could. 

“I got called into his office, and he told me they did a recount of scholarships after signing day, and they had a couple left to work with,” Johnson said. “He was going to honor Stock’s word. He said he saw how I worked and is hoping to see me not lose focus, keep up the good work in the spring, and put me on scholarship.”

His family has become a crucial aspect of his life throughout this process, and as he’s grown up. So the feeling he received when he had the opportunity to tell them he was placed on a full scholarship was like no other. 

“I told the family at my brother’s wrestling match. My parents were more excited than I was now that I wouldn’t have to apply for any more student loans to get through the rest of college,” Johnson said. “I wouldn’t have to be asking them for money and feeling like a burden. It was an amazing feeling to see my hard work pay off and see them smiling and happy for me.”

That brought out an emotional response from Johnson, who gives all the glory to God. 

“That was a big moment for me. I actually cried. I’m a big faith man, so I just told God thank you and give all the glory to my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.” Johnson said. 

“Everyone loved him and his positivity day in and day out,” Voyles said. “He pushed everyone around him to be better and was very dedicated. He would even hold player-only meetings after a loss to discuss what we can improve on as a team. He was super competitive, and that edge is what drove him to be so great while playing. Being his teammate, it was just cool to watch him get better and better each year.” 

Being put on scholarship gives Johnson an extra ounce of self-confidence that has come a long way from the moment when he first arrived. 

“I always asked myself when I walked on if I could really play at this level,” Johnson said. “During my redshirt year, I knew I would get acclimated, and I had a huge amount of faith in God, but I still didn’t have that faith in myself. As the years went on, though, I came to realize I could compete with the best scholarship players out there that we played. The scholarship hasn’t changed my mindset of how I will approach things, but gives me a sign of confirmation that I can compete and at the same level.”

With that added confidence, Johnson has big goals for this upcoming season. 

“I’m bought into the team goals that Coach Mason, Coach Blatnick, and the rest of the staff have of being conference champions,” Johnson said. “That’s the goal this season. We saw the schedule come out, and the chance is there to pick up some major wins, so this season, we want to turn a lot of heads.”

Shayne Pickering is a sportswriter for MTSU Sidelines. For more news, visit www.mtsusidelines.com. Also, follow us on Facebook and Instagram @mtsusidelines, or on X @MTSUSidelines. 







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