Like many NFL draft and signing hopefuls who just finished their college football season, Eastern running back Isaiah Johnson is competing in bowl games to get his name and image out to the world and in front of scouts. The difference between Johnson and all the other hopefuls that have played with him in the FCS National Bowl and the Spiral Tropical Bowl: Johnson has won MVP in both games.
Johnson accumulated 128 total yards of offense and scored one touchdown in the FCS National Bowl to earn offensive MVP honors back for his team in December and again took home hardware after rushing for 67 yards on four carries and one touchdown in the FBS Tropical Bowl.
The bowl games for Johnson provide him another chance to showcase his talent, which he believes to be NFL caliber in front of pro scouts. The MVP awards are just the fruits of that labor and evidence to talent level and potential he brings to the field.
“It just kind of builds my resume a little bit more coming from a small college,” Johnson said. “Just to show that we can play in bigger games with bigger schools.”
The Tropical Bowl gave Johnson just the chance he was looking for to show he is more than just a talented running back at the FCS level. Players from Notre Dame, Tennessee, Miami, Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Indiana all competed alongside Johnson in that game. And in the end, it would be Johnson who would stand out from them all.
Now with the bowl games behind him and the awards on the shelf, Johnson is turning his sites toward the NFL with a new-found outlook on his chances from the Tropical Bowl.
“It just gave me that kind of confidence to feel like I actually can play with those guys and have the ability to take it to that level,” Johnson said.
Johnson has been talking with agents and has met with scouts. NFL teams already showing interest in Johnson include the Arizona Cardinals, who he met with, and the Oakland Raiders and Cleveland Browns, both of which sent letters to his high school to conduct a background check on him.
The Seattle Seahawks and the New York Jets both had him fill out questionnaires and things for Johnson, who just over a month ago was sitting in classrooms on Eastern’s campus, are quickly turning to talks of playing professional football.
His family has been “hyping him up” over the prospect of playing in the NFL, but for Johnson, all of it still seems surreal.
“It kind of feels a lot unreal because it’s only like your dream, and your dream is kind of turning into goals, and it seems like they’re getting a little achievable,” Johnson said.
When Johnson committed to playing at Eastern after transferring from Moorpark Junior College, he looked at Eastern’s other NFL success stories like Mike Shanahan, Sean Payton, Kamu Grugier-Hill, Tony Romo and Jimmy Garoppollo and figured if he could come to Eastern and play well, that the NFL could be a real possibility for him.
Having “Isaiah Johnson” be the next name on that list is something that is important to Johnson not just for his own reasons, but he also wants to help give Eastern a bigger name on the national stage.
“As long as you think they had the chance, you can feel like you have a chance,” Johnson said. “I think it will be a great thing for the university to have another athlete get out there at that level because I think we have a lot of pride in our program and we have great history, and I think we can turn this small school aspect into a bigger school aspect and just bring more of a reality input to this program of what we can do here.”
Johnson was always confident in his ability as an athlete in high school and junior college, and he has been an all-conference player since he was sophomore in high school to back it up. He ran for a team-high 708 yards for Eastern’s pass-first offense last season and was named to the OVC’s all-second team.
He has really never had any reason to doubt his potential. But the prospect of playing in the NFL is a different animal all together.
Johnson was a bit nervous to be playing in front of so many scouts before the FCS Scout Bowl, so nervous in fact that during a practice he dropped a wide-open pass, something the sure-handed Johnson rarely does.
“When the ball was in the air I was just thinking a bit too much, but after that drop happened it kind of just broke me in a little bit and it kind of just knocked away all the nerves,” Johnson said.
Talking to agents, scouts, dealing with the process of transitioning into the NFL can be overwhelming for players coming from Alabama or Clemson, much less Eastern.
But, luckily Johnson has some company on the journey. Former teammates Alexander Hollins and Aaron Gooch are dealing with the same things as Johnson.
Particularly in the case of Hollins, both he and Johnson came to Eastern from junior colleges and quickly became all-conference talents with NFL potential.
“(Hollins and I) definitely have that same kind of mindset about it because we both came from junior colleges, so we kind of take big pride in that, and it’s just like that’s one of the lowest levels of football you can play in, and to be in the position that we are now is kind of like a little brotherhood that junior college players form,” Johnson said.
Johnson still has a lot to do and a lot to prove before NFL teams start filling out their rosters for the 2019-2020 season, but if the first month of his offseason has been any indication, he is certainly headed in the right direction.
JJ Bullock can be reached at 581-2812 or [email protected]