Editor’s note: Every day, from now until Penn State football’s Class of 2017 reports to campus June 24, we’ll highlight a different one of the Nittany Lions’ 17 incoming signees. Today is Day 12 of the 17-day series.
Months later, onlookers can still remember the play — one so electrifying it looked as if it jumped straight out of a video game console.
The running back in the white No. 2 jersey took the handoff and bounced behind the left tackle, then made a lightning-quick cutback to his right, breaking the ankles of two yellow-jerseyed tacklers and shaking off another two before hugging the sideline. At the 35-yard line, he hurdled a diving tackle attempt, then cut back toward the middle of the field and glided into the end zone to complete the 80-yard touchdown run.
All in all, the Cass Tech athlete — incoming Penn State freshman defensive back Donovan Johnson — made at least five defenders miss.
“I was like, ‘Man, how did he do that?’” Johnson’s coach, Thomas Wilcher, said with a chuckle.
Wilcher said it was not uncommon to be surprised by the 5-foot-9, 170-pound Johnson, who was recruited as a defensive back and was not the most demonstrative of individuals.
“He’s such a great all-around athlete that can do a lot, but you would never know unless you say, ‘Hey, let me see you do it,’” Wilcher said. “Then you’re like, ‘Wow, how did you do that?’”
It was a game against Saline High School that provided that spectacular highlight, but it was hardly the only one he made that night.
He had 13 carries for 285 yards and four touchdowns — three of them 48 yards or longer — in the Division 1 regional finals of the Michigan state playoffs. He was needed so much on offense that he stopped playing on the defensive side after the first quarter, and his Technicians team needed everything he had in a 43-42 win.
“I kind of put the team on my back that game,” Johnson remembered. “It was just surprising that I could do things like that against such a good team that deep in the playoffs. It was just crazy.”
By all appearances, the Nittany Lions may have stolen quite the athlete, who rates either three or four stars depending on the service, away from their Big Ten rivals in the Great Lakes State. Neither Michigan nor Michigan state offered the projected cornerback — but they may come to regret the decision.
Wilcher said Johnson, who started playing varsity late his freshman year, isn’t afraid of the weight room — or contributing everywhere on the field. Last season, he rushed for almost 1,100 yards and 16 touchdowns, returned three kicks for touchdowns and boasted three interceptions and a dozen pass breakups. The athlete also ran for the school’s track team with top times of 11.04 seconds in the 100-meter dash, 22.50 in the 200 and 6.64 in the 60. At The Opening in Oregon last summer, he sizzled with a 4.35 40-yard dash, and he capped his high school career playing in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl in January.
He’s had plenty of other clutch football plays reminiscent of Tecmo Bowl’s Bo Jackson, too, including a 90-yard kick return during his junior season in the city championship. And then there was a key interception last season against Pershing, when the opposing quarterback slung an errant pass 35 yards downfield — and Johnson read the throw, broke away from the receiver and sprinted right to where the ball landed.
Despite all that, of the 10 players rated as the best in the state according to a number of recruiting services and news organizations — including a pair of teammates — Johnson was the only one who did not sign with either Michigan or Michigan State.
But Johnson is more than OK with those schools not offering.
“It’s nice to get away, to go on my own path and not just stay in Michigan,” he said, adding Penn State felt like more of family than the other programs he visited. “It’s nice to leave home, start fresh, somewhere new.”
One thing Johnson would not mind when he gets to Happy Valley is talking to the coaches about giving him a shot on offense, where many of of those video game-esque highlights came at Cass Tech. He said he would love to be a two-way player and show off some more of those spectacular skills with the ball.
Either way, Johnson said he is ready to turn in some more highlights for his new family.
“It’s such a team sport,” he added. “You have your brothers on the field fighting for one goal. Everybody’s coming together as one. I love it.”
Overview of Donovan Johnson
Hometown/high school: Detroit/Cass Tech
Height/weight: 5-foot-9/170 pounds
Position: Defensive back
Recruit rankings: 4 stars (Rivals, Scout); 3 stars (247, ESPN)
Other scholarship offers: Arizona, Iowa State, Missouri, Nebraska, Oregon, Syracuse, Tennessee, Virginia Tech, West Virginia, Wisconsin
Assistant coach Terry Smith says: “Donovan Johnson is a tremendous athlete. He’s a mid to low 4.3 guy, explosive jumper, great feet, great hips. I’m really looking forward to working with him and his athleticism.”