Anthony Johnson was under pressure in December.
Not from a cocky cornerback with his hands all up in Johnson’s face. Johnson handled them with ease the entire 2017 college football season.
This pressure stemmed from the decision that followed Johnson’s success this past fall at the University of Buffalo.
The former South Pointe Stallion receiver opened the season with 11 catches for 140 yards and a touchdown against Big Ten foe Minnesota. Johnson, a redshirt junior, proceeded to have eight games with at least six grabs, and six games with 100 yards or more receiving. The final totals: 76 catches for 1,356 yards and 14 touchdowns.
Surely, Johnson would take advantage of his big season and enter the 2018 NFL Draft?
“He kind of shocked me too,” said Tony Watkins, Johnson’s uncle and a former Rock Hill High football great.
Nobody in Johnson’s immediate family has graduated from college.
He thought about that while ultimately opting to return to Buffalo for his senior season. His choice was surprising to some because he hasn’t always been academically-inclined.
Johnson was forced down the junior college path because of lax academic performance in high school. He is a bright guy, but he surrounded himself with too many distractions and didn’t focus on academics until high school was almost over. Johnson spent a year each at Butler and Iowa Western community colleges.
“It clicked when I got to juco,” he said. “It’s strictly football and school. It’s really in the middle of nowhere. Coaches are gonna be on you, they’re gonna know if you missed class or you won’t play. I couldn’t party. So I might as well just do it. And I ended up getting better while I was there.”
Watkins said his nephew wanted to be a leader in his family by making college graduation an expected achievement for its future generations. Johnson is putting his words into action. He had a 3.2 GPA last semester.
“It’s easy now, I’m knocking out everything,” said the sociology major. “I’m cool with going to class.”
Johnson only has one more semester, which made the decision to return to school easier. He’ll graduate in December and then focus solely on the NFL next spring.
“Getting that degree in December is very important,” said Rob Ianello, Buffalo’s wide receivers coach. “I think that’s great for other people to hear that and understand how important that is to him.”
Johnson’s on-field success last fall increased the likelihood that he would leave school early and enter the 2018 NFL Draft.
The 6-foot-2, 215-pounder was named Pro Football Focus first team All-American and first team All-Mid-American Conference, after leading the league in receiving yards per game (113) and receiving touchdowns (14). Johnson had 579 yards on passes 20 yards or longer, the third-best mark in FBS. He caught six touchdown balls in the first three months of the season but surged late, reeling in eight TDs during November alone.
“It was amazing,” said Johnson. “I went into the season nervous. I didn’t expect the season that I had. They started getting me the ball a lot and it keeps me rolling. Minnesota game, I just felt like I was unstoppable.”
None of that would have happened if Johnson had left Buffalo the year before.
He had interest from Big 12 and SEC schools out of Iowa Western, but conference rules prevented those schools from offering him. He graduated late in the recruiting year and landed at Buffalo. Bulls coaches wanted to redshirt him, in part because he was dealing with a nagging injury.
“He was looking at us a little cross-eyed,” Ianello said.
“I was really mad when I got redshirted,” Johnson said. “That kind of upset me and I was thinking about leaving. But I ended up pushing through it.”
Showing more of the patience he had to develop out on the American prairie, Johnson took advantage of the redshirt year and learned how to manage his freedom as a college student, how to practice at a FBS college football level. He improved his route-running and added almost 20 pounds of muscle to his frame.
Ianello thought Johnson was a guy the UB staff could count on in 2017, and Johnson repaid his coach’s faith with a fast start to the season.
Even when defenses honed in on him, he embraced playing in different spots. An elite athlete, Johnson lined up outside, in the slot and even in the backfield. Ianello said the coaching staff piled mental cues and information on him during practices, but he gobbled it all up.
“We got a few games into this season here and he says the best thing he ever did was redshirt,” said Ianello.
Back to the NFL Draft decision.
Johnson was well-informed. He got a draft grade from the league -- he’s keeping that private -- and he talked to many of Rock Hill’s recently active NFL players, including his cousin, Jadeveon Clowney, Johnathan Joseph, Cordarrelle Patterson and Jonathan Meeks.
Throughout the process, his uncle, Watkins, was a vital sounding board for Johnson. But there were strong arguments on both sides.
“I was really in a tough predicament,” Johnson said. “I didn’t know what I was gonna do.”
This year’s NFL Draft includes 119 underclassmen. Ninety-five underclassmen entered the 2017 draft, but 28 of them weren’t selected. The NFL is a meritocracy. There are no guarantees.
“It’s real tough. It’s a 50-50 chance, as far as the draft,” Watkins said. “But finishing his degree was 100 percent. And his draft status would increase. The flip side is (this year) it could drop, and then he’d have to pay to go back to school. That kind of played on his mind also.”
An NFL career can be life-changing, especially the unusually successful NFL careers that some of Johnson’s mentors have had. But a college degree can change generations in a much more long-term sustainable manner, something that Johnson grasped, and something that he now has the chance to do for himself and his family.
“As far as being a man, that shows a lot of maturity,” said Watkins. “He’s pretty much growing up, growing into his own and taking responsibility for his future. I was very proud of him for that. I was elated when he told me that.”
Anthony Johnson has elite athleticism and body control, and very strong hands, according to his receivers coach at Buffalo, Rob Ianello. But Johnson’s NFL Draft grade suggests that there is still work to do.
Ianello and Johnson plan to review each of his targets from the 2017 season -- catches or otherwise -- to identify what he needs to improve this coming season.
“I put up the same numbers twice, you can’t overlook me,” Johnson said. “And I didn’t want to be no last-round-type pick.”
Talented Buffalo QB Tyree Jackson, another NFL prospect with whom Johnson developed a strong chemistry this season, is also back. Another full offseason working with Jackson, a 6-foot-7, 245-pound sophomore, should help Johnson prove his production last fall wasn’t a fluke.
“I still think his best football is ahead of him,” said Scott Strohmeier, Johnson’s former coach at Iowa Western Community College.
Strohmeier thinks that landing at Buffalo was a blessing for Johnson because he is the featured passing target, instead of potentially just another guy at an SEC school. Strohmeier knows NFL scouts’ eyes will pop out of their sockets when they see the 6-foot-2, 215-pound Johnson at any pro days or NFL combine events in 2019.
“He’s certainly on the radar now,” said Ianello. “So I don’t think he’ll get a shortage of opportunities to get evaluated.”