That situation changed on Sunday when the virtual unknown became a future Volunteer. Soon those Big Orange boosters that were boohooing over Reynaldo Hill may be exclaiming: Reynaldo Who!?
Johnson’s low-profile status is understandable when you consider that he moved from Boston, Mass., to Tulsa, Okla., as a high school junior, where he played quarterback for Victory Christian and experienced better than fair success with very little fanfare. The situation was exasperated by the fact he was an academic casualty.
Eventually he was signed by Northeast Oklahoma A&M Community College where he was redshirted as a freshman in order to learn a position he had never played before — cornerback. He started for the Golden Norsemen in 2002 and led the nation’s No. 2 ranked junior college team with six interceptions.
“He’s really just learning the game.” said NEO defensive coordinator Steve Patterson. “He’s been a quarterback all his life, and when we recruited him we told him we were going to move him to corner. We redshirted him last year and that was the big learning process for him. This was his first year to ever play corner as far as game-wise, and every snap was a learning experience for him. He got better and better, and just on pure athletic ability made a lot of great plays and did a nice job for us.”
To hear about Johnson is to be impressed, but to see him is to truly appreciate a young man who is nothing short of a superb football specimen with an array of athletic skills.
“He’s an athlete,” said Patterson. “He can throw the ball. He’s 6-2, 198; that’s what he weighed this year. He’s well put together. He’s physical enough to play safety. He ran a 4.46 last spring. He’s a tremendous athlete, he’s just learning the game back there.”
While Johnson was earning experience he was also producing results. In addition to playing corner, he was also gunner for NEO’s punt teams which requires speed as well as the ability to shed blocks and make solid tackles. In the conference championship game, Johnson made an interception in the end zone to climax a dramatic game-clinching, goal-line stand.
“We had one of the top secondaries in the country,” Patterson stated. “Teams threw 200 passes against our secondary the last four games because they just gave up trying to run on us. We played a team for the conference championship that was averaging 42 points a game, and we held them to seven.
“In fact, Brandon intercepted a pass in the end zone. We had four goal-line stands and we knocked two down and one was intercepted by Brandon.”
In addition to being big and fast, Johnson is also strong (300-pound bench) and capable of playing corner or safety. In Tennessee’s defensive scheme, it’s even easy to imagine a bulked-up Johnson playing outside linebacker where he could pressure the passer and disrupt the offenses with backside blitzes.
“He can play safety,” said Patterson. “He could play corner. Brandon is a special athlete. He could play anything he set his mind to. I think he’s a true secondary guy. He’s big and he’s strong and he’s physical. He’s can be as good as he wants to be.”
Johnson was certainly good enough to be voted an all-conference performer as top gun in a secondary that produced six Division I scholarship players and on a team that graduated 17 Division I players. But again, Johnson’s star was victim to the vagaries of publicity when it came to getting his due.
“We’re the only Oklahoma school in an all-Texas conference so it’s hard for us to make all-conference,” said Patterson. “I had a guy two years ago who intercepted 10 passes and didn’t make it. We rotated three corners and all three signed with Division I schools, two went to Oklahoma State and Brandon is going to Tennessee.
“I have seven sophomores in the secondary and six of them signed Division I scholarships. With Brandon’s size and speed, he could play on Sunday.”
And Coach isn’t talking about touch football at the city park on Sunday either. NEO has sent a steady stream of big-time athletes into the pros. This is the school that gave Tennessee Chuck and Buck, as in Smith and Buxton. Former UT receiver and returner Billy Williams also began as a Golden Norsemen.
Although Johnson won’t be able to join the Vols until he graduates in May, he will have three years to play three seasons, which means, he’ll figure into the secondary mix in the fall and could become an immediate special teams standout.
“He does a good job tackling,” said Patterson. “Brandon is very well spoken and can do whatever he puts his mind to, whenever he wants to. We work hard here. We had 17 guys that got Division I scholarships this year.
“He’ll have three years to play three. That will be good for Tennessee and him. He’s still just learning to play back there and corner is not an easy position. When he learns what to do every snap, he’s going to be a great player. He was a great player this year for us.”
Despite being a great player for a team that finished 11-1, No. 2 in the country and winner of the Red River Bowl, Johnson continues to be overlooked by many recruiting experts and all-star teams.
“He’s really kind of an unknown because he came here from Boston,” said Patterson. “Nobody really knew anything about him.”
Johnson’s anonymity is likely to become a thing of the past.