Johnson came to Villanova as a highly touted running back and saw some action at that position as a freshman. But with all-American Brian Westbrook returning from knee surgery for the 2000 season, Johnson appeared destined to spend much of the next two years on the bench.
The Villanova coaching staff wanted to get athletes of Johnson's caliber on the field, so he agreed to move over to defense. It was a long season.
"Last year, I had no clue as to what I was doing," Johnson, a junior majoring in economics, said. "I knew what I was supposed to do, but I was thinking too much and not doing it. When I did do something good, it was just me playing hard and athletic ability. So I had to get a better grasp of not just what I was doing, but what everybody else was doing."
Johnson remains a target because of his size, but he leads the Atlantic Ten with 17 pass breakups to go with a pair of interceptions. He attributed the improvement to hard work in the off-season, on technique and hitting the weights.
Last week, in the Wildcats' 54-34 victory over No. 3 Hofstra, the Pride tried to go deep on Johnson with wide receiver Kahmal Roy, who was putting up Jerry Rice-type numbers this season. Though Roy caught his share, Johnson made sure he didn't pop the big play. Hofstra scored just seven points in the second half.
"I guess he's a pro prospect and I'm only 5-6 or 5-7," Johnson said. "So they figured they had the matchup, but it didn't go the way they wanted. They threw about four or five deep balls on me but didn't complete any of them.
"Last year, I didn't really talk to the other defensive guys. I just tried to play my position. But I know them better this year. Knowing each other more means you know what the whole defense is going to do. It brings some trust. That's a big difference."
Johnson, who is listed at 5-8 in the Villanova media guide, might as well wear a bull's-eye because of his height, but he doesn't mind. It's something he talks easily about.
"People bring it up all the time," he said. "I used to be the bigger kid when I was younger. But once high school came along, everyone passed me.
"I feel I'm just as athletic and just as fast as [opposing receivers], but my height is a problem sometimes. My room for error is smaller against people who are 6-1, so I have to time the perfect jump."
Johnson traveled a circuitous route to Villanova. Born in Waukegan, Ill., he starred in basketball and football at Lake Forest Academy, a private school north of Chicago. After two seasons, however, Johnson saw two friends expelled over what he called racial issues and decided he would leave.
Instead of transferring to the public high school in Waukegan, Johnson hooked up with his Lake Forest football coach, John Morrison, who was about to take a new job at Francis Parker High School in San Diego, and went west with him. In his senior year, Johnson was named offensive player of the year in his conference.
A number of Division I-A colleges expressed interest in Johnson but had reservations about his height. However, when looking at Division I-AA schools, Johnson liked Villanova and decided to come east.
With two games to go, Johnson and his teammates have an opportunity to win a championship, and they know what needs to be done.
"We're riding high right now," he said. "But if we lose this week, beating the No. 3 team in the nation doesn't mean anything to us. We have to play a strong game for both halves."
Joe Juliano's e-mail address is email@example.com.