On Saturday, Johnson will be the No. 20 Bulldogs’ second-team tailback when they play No. 9 Florida in Jacksonville. That designation doesn’t mean he will get a carry or even step on the field.
Georgia plans to use freshman starter Knowshon Moreno as long as they can and are even talking about burning the redshirt season of freshman Caleb King. Johnson, frankly, is to be used in for emergency purposes only.
Still, he’s come a long way from Chicago’s Dunbar Vocational Career Academy (where he sang in the choir with Jennifer Hudson, who won an Academy Award earlier this year for her role in the movie Dreamgirls). Johnson was named the city’s most outstanding running back after his senior season at Dunbar.
That honor didn’t get him any collegiate attention, though. Johnson didn’t get a single scholarship offer after rushing for 2,042 yards and 28 touchdowns as a senior. He sent tape to Alabama A&M and Northern Illinois, but they said both said no, by which time Johnson was getting used to rejection.
He was not picked for the Illinois all-star game after his senior season and sat out the city all-star game, to which he got an invitation, in protest, he said.
“I didn’t want to belittle myself by playing in the city, which I wish I would have,” he said. “That would have been my last chance to play high school football.”
Johnson ended up at Georgia only after he was shipped an application to the school because he had good grades at Dunbar. After Johnson filled out the paperwork, he got a call from an admissions official at Georgia.
“He saw that I played football, and he said we’ve got a pretty good football team here, too,” Johnson said.
Johnson sent film of himself to Joe Tereshinski Jr., the Bulldogs’ video coordinator, who offered Johnson a spot as a preferred walk-on. So here he came, knowing nobody and next to nothing about the school or the team.
“The only person I knew about was Herschel Walker,” he said.
Since arriving, almost all of Johnson’s contributions have come on the practice field as a scout team player or a fill-in to keep starters fresh in practice. He had three carries for 44 yards as a sophomore but hasn’t seen the ball since.
“I earned my recognition through practice and through scout team. I will never forget the first time (former offensive coordinator Neil) Callaway spoke to me,” Johnson said. “He said, ‘What’s your name son?’ and I said, ‘Chi-town,’ because that’s what everybody was calling me. It’s the first thing that came to my mind.”
While toiling on the practice field, Johnson also was paying out-of-state tuition for his first three years.
“It was real tough on my parents,” he said. “It was more tough on me emotionally to see what they had to go through to pay for my school, take out loans and stuff.”
Head coach Mark Richt gave Johnson a scholarship prior to the 2006 season.
“I just broke down,” Johnson said. “It was so overwhelming and emotional for me. The first thing I wanted to do was call my mom and tell her. She was at work and she just screamed out like she was at home in the kitchen. I know that made her proud, and then I called my dad. That was a real good day for me.”
Johnson still is getting used to things in the south, he said.
“It’s just real quiet,” he said. “Coming from the inner city, I was used to a lot of noise. Every night I would hear some kind of siren whether it was fire or police or ambulance, something. Here, you can hear a cricket (at night). It’s like a ghost town.”