The Hawkinsville native considers himself “a strong lean” to return to Georgia next year, he said this week, but he admitted he’s considering early entry now more than he was midseason. Johnson already has the NFL paperwork but hasn’t turned it in yet.
“I don’t know man, I’m still deciding,” he said. “There are a lot of things you have to look at. You have to look at the talent that is coming out, how you think you’re going to get drafted, you have to look at next year if you come back. You have to look at all different types of things.”
Johnson, 6-foot-2, 275 pounds, was named second-team All-SEC this season after leading the Bulldogs with 7.5 sacks and 16 tackles-for-loss during the regular season. He also had nine pass deflections and 23 quarterback hurries in his first season as a starter.
He won’t make a final decision until after the Bulldogs (8-4) play No. 14 Virginia Tech on Dec. 30 in the Georgia Dome, he said.
Johnson talks about the possibility of leaving often with his roommate, fellow defensive end Quentin Moses, he said. Moses, a senior, had the same decision to make last year. He decided to return and has seen his status slide from the top senior defensive end in the nation to the fifth-best in ESPN analyst Mel Kiper’s latest rankings.
However, Moses’ experience won’t have any effect on Johnson’s decision, Johnson said.
“I think he made the right decision because he is going to graduate at the end of this semester,” Johnson said. “That’s a big thing for him. Just because he didn’t have the stats that he had last year, he still had an amazing year. It was good for him.”
Johnson is rated the second-best junior defensive lineman in the country by Kiper, who recently moved Arkansas’ Jamaal Anderson ahead of him on that list.
If the NFL’s underclassman advisory committee doesn’t project Johnson as a first-rounder, he probably won’t leave, he said.
“I just have to see what the paperwork says,” he said. “It’s just going to depend on what I feel is best for me.”
Kiper lists six defensive ends – Clemson’s Gaines Adams, Nebraska’s Adam Carriker, Texas’ Tim Crowder, Purdue’s Anthony Spencer, Moses and Michigan’s LaMarr Woodley – among his top 25 senior pro prospects this year.
“It’s a very good year at defensive end, that’s working against (Johnson),” said Frank Coyle, who has published Draft Insiders’ Digest for 16 years and operates www.draftinsiders.com. “There are a dozen good-looking defensive ends out there. Now, where is he going to come out in there?”
Johnson’s status would depend largely on how he worked out at the NFL Combine and his statistics against some of the SEC’s top competition, Coyle said.
“I think he has a chance to be (a first-round pick), but you have to dot all the Is and cross all the Ts for that to happen,” Coyle said. “I’ve seen so many kids talk a big game and then go out and run, at his position, say a 4.9, lift (225 pounds) 16 times instead of 26 times. And then you look at their sacks, and they’ve been beating sophomores from Vanderbilt.”
Johnson had a combined five tackles, one sack and two tackles-for-loss against Tennessee, Florida and Auburn this year. He played this season with insurance that will pay off if he suffers an injury that keeps him from being drafted, and he probably will increase the policy if he returns next year.
The Bulldogs haven’t practiced since their 15-12 win over Georgia Tech Nov. 25. They spent this week working out and conditioning and will return to the practice field Thursday, the last day of final exams.