As a 165-pound sophomore cornerback last season, Darius Johnson didn’t back down against Archbishop Curley’s 280-pound senior running back in a November game.
After the Friars’ Nik D’Avanzo — an All-Metro first-team selection at defensive tackle last season — took each handoff, a blitzing Johnson hit him in the gap.
“He made that kid go backwards,” Crusaders defensive coordinator Keith Rawlings said about Johnson’s tackles. St. Paul’s won the game, 32-7.
Hoping to continue his football career in college, Johnson has approached this summer with a similar tenacity.
After traveling between Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey to attend a circuit of combines over the past two months, the 5-foot-11 rising junior will participate in Football University’s Top Gun national three-day camp, an invitation-only showcase clinic that takes place in Dublin, Ohio, starting Thursday.
“It was unexpected. ... I know it’s a big thing,” Johnson said. “I’m looking forward to going down there and show basically what I can do with my ability.”
According to Football University’s website, the camp is “a one-of-a-kind football training experience focusing on developing and enhancing the playmaking ability and skill of elite-level athletes.” Along with its strive to improve athletes’ technique through the instruction from an NFL-experienced staff, the event also lists one of its goals to “expose their entire football portfolio to as many colleges as possible.”
Johnson said: “It’s very important because I’m trying to make it easier for my parents [and] get a scholarship. Just to take the load off them, so they don't have to pay a lot of money.”
Rawlings sees the camp as a prime opportunity for Johnson — and for on-looking scouts.
“On tape, you can see a kid cover well, you can see a kid come up and make plays,” he said, “but you can’t really see what they do in between plays. You can’t see how sold out they are on playing the game of football.”
As a freshman at St. Paul’s, his physical play was impossible for coaches to ignore. After starting the season on the junior varsity squad, Johnson dressed with the varsity team for the second half of the season.
“He really stepped up,” Crusaders defensive backs coach Joe Pino said, before adding with a laugh: “He did not mind contact at all.”
Fitting to his gameday approach, Johnson didn’t back down as a sophomore. He stepped into a veteran secondary on a Crusaders team that went undefeated and won the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association B Conference championship.
“When he came up, he said this to a couple of our veteran guys,” Rawlings said. “He said, ‘Guys, I’m taking a position. I’m starting in the secondary somewhere.’ ”
On the team’s first day of practice with full pads last summer, head coach Paul Bernstorf remembered putting Johnson in challenging situations against older, bigger teammates. Bernstorf watched Johnson take those chances, shed blockers and plunge ferociously to make tackles. He did the same as a starting cornerback throughout the season.
“I think it says he has a lot of self-confidence,” Bernstorf said. “I think he believes in himself, which I think is the most important thing right off the bat.”
For as sure and rash as his style might be on the field, Johnson is mild and controlled off of it, cordially speaking with “yes sirs” and “yes ma’ams.” His coaches get handshakes and “thank you” comments from him after practices.
“I wish I had 10 more like him,” Rawlings said. “He’s special.”
Heading into the season, Rawlings said he’s looking to demonstrate Johnson’s versatility. Along with his spot at cornerback, Rawlings said Johnson will likely get looks at free safety, and in some situations, at outside linebacker. His role could expand from defense, too. In 7-on-7 scrimmages throughout the summer, Johnson has played at wide receiver.
“Anything I can do to get on the field,” Johnson said. “I’ll try it.”