Georgia Tech defensive end Michael Johnson enters his senior season at as one of college football's best-kept secrets. Among NFL scouts, though, the word already is out.
Johnson could get drafted in the first round next spring even though he has started just one game in each of the past two seasons. In the week after the 2008 NFL Draft, one 2009 mock draft had Johnson going second overall.
"He has a pro-style game with his length, athleticism and ability to rush the passer," says Mike Lombardi, a former NFL executive who now writes for nationalfootballpost.com. "It's not always about how many sacks you have. It's how you fit into a pro system."
NFL scouts look at Johnson's combination of size (he's 6 feet 7 and 260 pounds) and athleticism (he starred on his high school basketball team and was recruited as a tight end) and imagine him developing into the next Mario Williams.
Of course, he has to prove he can get it done at the college level before he gets a chance in the pro ranks. Although Johnson entered the game in just about every pass-rushing situation last season, he didn't actually appear in Georgia Tech's starting lineup until the Humanitarian Bowl loss to Fresno State. He spent most of the 2007 season backing up Darrell Robertson and Adamm Oliver, who finished their college careers last fall.
That didn't stop the Atlantic Coast Conference media from selecting Johnson to the preseason all-conference team. And it hasn't prevented NFL scouts from savoring the opportunity to see how his game could translate to the pro level.
"It's not a question of whether he's got to make a name for himself," says Mike Mayock, a draft analyst for NFL Network. "He already has. What he needs to do is take advantage of his standing. He needs to have a great year, go play in the Senior Bowl and dominate people. If he does that, he has the physical capabilities to be a top-10 pick."
Johnson said he isn't paying much attention to what draft analysts are saying. He's too busy focusing on the present to worry about his future.
"I've heard stuff from different people," Johnson says of his draft prospects, "but I try not to look at that kind of stuff. I just go out and work hard every day and focus. I kind of have an underdog mentality to go out and get better every day. I never get content."
The lure of a pro career tempted Johnson enough that he applied to the NFL Draft Advisory Board last year to see how teams viewed him, though he never seriously considered passing up his senior season. He was projected as a third-round pick if he had turned pro after his junior season.
Johnson has received so much acclaim without the appropriate track record that it would be tempting to label him an underachiever. In reality, that's wrong.
The former valedictorian from Dallas County High School in Plantersville, Ala., is the son of a Purple Heart recipient who made sure Johnson learned the value of discipline and dedication.
"When he was younger, he wanted to be a Marine," says Johnson's dad, Vietnam veteran Samuel Johnson. "I said, 'No, I don't want you to be a Marine.' I told him to go to a great institution and get an education instead. With his great academic ability, I really and truly thought he could make a contribution in a different area, like maybe law, medicine or something like that."
Johnson instead has majored in management, though his athletic ability could put a business career on hold.
He boasts the kind of physical gifts that caused his high school coach to label him a future NFL player the first time they met. But he also had the discipline necessary to realize what he had to do to get that far.
"This kid has worked to get himself in the position he's in," says Ricky Bush, who coached Johnson at Dallas County. "I talked to Michael about his goals, what he wanted to do, where he wanted to be. He stressed that he wanted to play in college and in the NFL. We set goals for him, and he reached every one of them by the time he graduated."
Those goals included making sure Johnson was prepared to handle the physical rigors that come from playing big-time college football. By the time he graduated from high school, Johnson was bench-pressing 355 pounds, squatting 550 pounds and running the 40-yard dash in less than 4.7 seconds.
All that work in the weight room helped give Johnson the dream combination for any pro prospect. He's a tall pass rusher with the body and skills of a basketball player.
THEIR STOCK IS RISING
Georgia Tech defensive end Michael Johnson isn't the only college player whose draft stock may be higher than his career statistics would suggest. Here are some other under-the-radar college players who could develop into early-round picks.
• CB Darius Butler, Connecticut: Butler is entering his fourth season as a starter, but how many college football fans outside of Big East country know his name? He has broken up seven passes each of the past three seasons and looks to continue the Big East's recent tradition of producing first-round cornerbacks (Pittsburgh's Darrelle Revis in 2007, USF's Mike Jenkins in 2008).
• QB Hunter Cantwell, Louisville: This senior only now is taking over as Louisville's starting quarterback, but he received a decent amount of playing time backing up Brian Brohm the past three seasons. He even threw three touchdown passes in the Gator Bowl after the 2006 season. A big senior year could make Cantwell one of the top quarterback prospects in the upcoming draft class.
• OT Xavier Fulton, Illinois: He was overshadowed in the Big Ten last season by Michigan OT Jake Long and on his line by All-America G Martin O'Donnell. Now that Long and O'Donnell have departed, Fulton has a chance to prove he should be a first-day pick. Fulton missed the 2006 season with a knee injury, but he sure looked healthy last season while compiling a team-high 109 knockdowns.
• WR Darrius Heyward-Bey, Maryland: Don't let his statistics fool you. Heyward-Bey never has had more than 786 receiving yards or five touchdown catches in a season, but his relative lack of production is mainly because of Maryland's problems at quarterback. Heyward-Bey's combination of size (6-3) and speed (4.23 in the 40) make him a likely first-rounder if he turns pro after his junior season.
• WR Louis Murphy, Florida: Tim Tebow and Percy Harvin aren't the only pro prospects in that high-powered Gators offense. Murphy caught just 37 passes for 548 yards and five touchdowns last season, but he should have a bigger role this season now that Andre Caldwell is in the NFL and TE Cornelius Ingram has sustained a season-ending knee injury. Murphy's 6-3 frame makes him difficult to cover, and his 4.3 speed in the 40 makes it easy for him to gain separation.
"Here's a kid who's 6-7 and 260 pounds and probably runs a sub-4.6 (40-yard dash)," Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson says. "He can jump out of the gym, change direction, and he's got a great motor."
Johnson is such a versatile athlete that schools didn't know what to do with him. Vanderbilt and Clemson recruited him as a defensive end. Most other programs saw Johnson as a tight end. He caught 42 passes for 650 yards and six touchdowns as a senior at Selma High.
The list of schools that recruited Johnson as a tight end included Georgia Tech, but he moved to defense shortly after arriving on campus. The position switch didn't bother Johnson. "I just like to play football," he says. "Wherever you put me, I'll play."
Although this will mark his first season as an every-down player, Johnson already has delivered a couple of signature moments at Tech.
Two years ago, Maryland trailed Tech 27-23 and had third-and-goal from the Yellow Jackets' 4 in the final minute when Johnson sacked Sam Hollenbach for a 10-yard loss. On the next play, Johnson sacked Hollenbach again to clinch a victory.
Last season, Tech squeaked past North Carolina 27-25 after Johnson partially blocked Connor Barth's 63-yard field-goal attempt as time expired.
"He's a hard worker who plays with a great motor," Paul Johnson says. "He's fought some injury problems, nothing major, just some little stuff. He's got to go out there and be an every-down player. He's got tremendous upside. He's got great athletic ability. Physically, he's a freak.''
Johnson's extraordinary potential helped him catch the attention of NFL scouts. And it certainly doesn't hurt that pass rushers have become more and more of a premium at the next level.
The Houston Texans used the first overall pick in the 2006 NFL Draft to take Williams, a defensive end out of N.C. State. NFL teams selected defensive ends with four of the first 17 overall picks two years ago and three of the first eight selections this year.
"In the NFL, the two priorities are defensive ends or outside linebackers who can get to the quarterback and cover corners," Mayock said. "They're the kind of guys who don't make it to free agency too often. They get re-signed early or get franchised. If there's a talented defensive end with the ability to get to the quarterback, they don't last long."
Does Johnson have that kind of game-changing ability? The jury's still out in that regard.
Johnson certainly demonstrated against Maryland two years ago that he had that kind of promise, but he has only shown that ability in flashes because of his relative lack of playing time. He has collected six tackles for loss each of the past two years and has 10 career sacks.
Those are relatively nice numbers, but they're not the statistics you expect of a first-round pick.
"He's going to have to have a good season," Lombardi says. "There's no such thing as a lock first-round pick (but) he's going to have to have a great year, which he should have."
If Johnson is worrying about how this season might affect his draft position, he isn't letting it show. Johnson said he would like Tech to lead the nation in sacks for a second consecutive season – a tough challenge now that former defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta and his blitzing schemes have headed to Notre Dame – but he hasn't mentioned any personal goals he would like to reach.
"There's no pressure," he says. "I've been playing ball since I was 10 years old. Expectations are from other people. My expectations are always to do my best and to do well. Those are the expectations I have for myself. I don't really worry about what other people's expectations are. Most of the time, I'm going to hold myself to a higher standard than anyone else."
He isn't dwelling on the expectations because he already knows the pressure he faces on the football field can't compare to the adversity his relatives already encountered on the battlefield. Johnson has a cousin in the Air Force who served in Iraq. His father served in Vietnam and nearly paid the ultimate price.
Samuel Johnson was working as part of a Marine patrol in combat 41 years ago when he hit a land mine, which forced him to spend the next 16 months in a hospital. He eventually regained his health, got married and started a family that includes a potential NFL star.