Hampton University's next exceptional defender is in uniform because of, in order, a coaching change in Ann Arbor, Mich., a chance conversation at a rec league basketball game in New Orleans, and a persuasive phone call from Pirates' coach Donovan Rose.
Those were the three primary factors that brought Carvin Johnson to Hampton. The junior strong safety not only blended into the program seamlessly, he established himself as a playmaker and leader from the day he arrived last winter.
"We have some guys who are young and instantly they voted Carvin as a leader and a captain," Rose said. "We rely a lot on him. The biggest thing he brings is how to be successful, how to be a champion."
Johnson and the Pirates prepare for their home opener 6 p.m. Saturday against local rival Old Dominion and its high-powered offense. HU aims to atone for last week's 41-31 loss at Tennessee Tech, a game in which it spotted Tech a 31-7 halftime lead before tightening up.
"All due respect to Tennessee Tech, but a lot of it was us," Johnson said. "We didn't do the things we should have done in the first half. They only scored 10 points in the second half and they shouldn't have had that. We played bad and still almost won."
The 6-foot-1, 205-pound Johnson did his part, recording 18 total tackles and a tackle-for-loss — the kind of performance he expects from himself, but rarely delivered his first two years in college.
A highly-rated defensive back from New Orleans, he signed with Michigan when Rich Rodriguez was the head coach. After Rodriguez was canned, Johnson simply didn't mesh with new coach Brady Hoke and his staff.
Johnson played in the Wolverines' first eight games last season, as a backup defensive back and on special teams, but bolted on Nov. 1. He was one of a half-dozen Wolverines who left the program after Hoke was hired the previous winter.
"It's hard to explain," Johnson said. "I wasn't playing as much as I thought I should. I felt like I was better than the person in front of me. But it wasn't just playing time. I just didn't want to go back. I was tired of going in there every day."
Johnson returned home to New Orleans and pondered his next move. He considered transferring to Arizona, where Rodriguez was hired. But he would have had to sit out a year, per NCAA transfer rules. He also considered Louisiana FCS schools McNeese State and Nicholls State.
When he went to watch a friend play a rec league basketball game, a man recognized him and approached him about his plans. Johnson said he intended to play. The man asked if he might consider Hampton. Johnson had never heard of the school. The man talked up the school's football tradition, location, history, academics.
"And he kept bringing up the women," Johnson said with a smile. Johnson thanked the man and did a little research. A couple of days later, Rose called and the two arranged for Johnson to visit the school.
Johnson enjoyed his visit and returned home to weigh his options. Much as he didn't want to sit a year, he decided on Arizona, largely because of the level of competition. But Rose called and in a lengthy conversation, persuaded Johnson to come to HU.
"He made it sound like home, like it was the place I needed to be," Johnson said. "It wasn't just about football, it was about making changes in people's lives and building something."
When Johnson enrolled at HU last winter, he didn't intend to lead — not immediately, in any case. He wanted to acclimate to the school, his coaches and teammates. He simply wanted to work, and to play.
Rose saw differently.
"He's definitely going to help us get better," he said. "All 60 or 80 of my players may not get it all at once, but I need some guys that I can count on, that I know I can go to, and Carvin's one of those guys."
Rose told him that other players naturally would look up to him because of his experiences and ability. Indeed, Johnson's soft-spoken demeanor belies a physical, aggressive presence on the field.
"I want to bring a nasty attitude," he said. "I want running backs to know I'm going to run through you. Quarterbacks are going to hate me because if they throw my way, I'm going to intercept it. That's my mindset."
Through one spring, one summer camp and one game at Hampton U., Johnson said that the similarities far outweigh the differences between the Big Ten and FCS-level football.
"Bigger stadiums, more fans," he said. "Linemen may be a little bigger in the Big Ten. But there are players here. In practice, everybody competes and wants to be the best."
His coaches at HU, he said, are among the best and most demanding he's ever had.
Johnson sees the same qualities every day in classes he attends.
"I am getting more intelligent here," he said. "People here are competing to be great. Everybody's striving to be great. It's a different place. It's not for your average college student."
Johnson aims to be not your average college football player.
"I want young kids to come in and work harder than me and be better than me," Johnson said. "I want to get them some rings."
"I want one, too," he said with a grin, "but I want them to get rings and have success."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun