At his core, Isaiah Johnson still considers himself a Jersey guy. And why not? He grew up there. Lived in Piscataway. Cruised down the turnpike. Aside from the Church of Springsteen, he has a pretty good handle on most of the state’s notable customs.
So when the Kansas football team lands in North Carolina this weekend for an early road test at Duke, it won’t necessarily be a homecoming for Johnson, a junior safety. More like a second homecoming, he says. Johnson’s family moved to North Carolina in the summer before his eighth-grade year. Once there, he grew into one of the state’s best high school football players at Panther Creek High School in Cary, N.C. — a pleasant little suburb just 20 miles from Wallace Wade Stadium, the site of Saturday’s matchup.
“I joke around a lot with the guys on the team,” says Johnson, who still holds bits and pieces of his Jersey accent. “I’m more of a Jersey guy than a North Carolina guy.”
It’s safe to say that Charlie Weis, an avowed Jersey aficionado, would rubber-stamp Johnson’s feelings. But on an early September afternoon, Johnson is sitting inside the Anderson Family Football Complex. If you look closely, you can pick out some of the more obvious Carolina influences. Polo, for instance. Perhaps nobody in the program owns a more varied and sharp assortment of Polo shirts and Polo pajama pants — a post-practice necessity.
Johnson, you see, is really a product of all his environs — from Jersey to Cary to one season at Western Carolina to Iowa Western Community College in 2012. Now in his second season at KU, Johnson is the reigning Big 12 defensive newcomer of the year and a linchpin in a promising KU secondary.
With four returning starters in the rotation, Johnson and the secondary flashed some of their natural talent in the Jayhawks’ 34-28 victory Southeast Missouri State in the season opener. Senior Dexter McDonald, a Rockhurst graduate, recorded two interceptions, while the Jayhawks held the Redhawks scoreless in the first half.
The second half, of course, was a wake-up call. Southeast Missouri quarterback Kyle Snyder passed for 269 yards, and the Jayhawks had to fend off a late charge in the final minutes. Now the KU secondary will prepare to defend a dangerous Duke receiving corps. Senior Jamison Crowded hauled in 108 receptions last season, while senior Issac Blakeney, a 6-foot-6 target, can be a terror on smaller defensive backs.
“The people most dynamic on their team are the wide receivers,” Weis said. “(The secondary) also happens to be the position that we feel the best about on our defense, so something is going to have to give here. I’m rooting for the good guys.”
Johnson, as one might expect, has faith in the secondary. A year ago, he was a first-year starter in a group with five new starters, including the nickel position. The unit — which included cornerback JaCorey Shepherd and juco transfer safety Cassius Sendish — was fresh and untested. A year later — after a solid performance in 2013 — defensive coordinator Clint Bowen is now being asked how Kansas’ secondary measures up to its heralded 2007 unit, which included NFL players Aqib Talib, Chris Harris and Darrell Stuckey.
“A year later,” Bowen said, “we’re talking about these guys matching probably one of the best secondaries in Kansas football history. But they do have the talent to do it.”
For Johnson, the roots of the talent grew on Tobacco Road, where he bloomed into a standout on both sides of the ball. During his junior year, Johnson says, a collection of in-state schools showed interest. Duke put out some feelers. So did Wake Forest and North Carolina State. But Johnson’s grades were borderline — and most of the ACC schools backed off.
“There were a bunch of colleges down there for me,” Johnson said, “but it didn’t work out like that.”
Johnson landed at Western Carolina, a program in the Football Championship Subdivision. But after an injury-plagued redshirt year, Johnson still had Division I aspirations. So he took off for Iowa Western Community College, where he helped current K-State quarterback Jake Waters win a national title in 2012.
Last season, his development continued under Bowen and defensive backs coach Dave Campo. Johnson finished with a team-high five interceptions while playing the role of ball-hawking safety.
Now he heads back home. His other home. Johnson expects close to 25 friends and family members in attendance. His parents will be there, too. His path to Kansas was not exactly smooth or linear. But it worked out.
“Yes,” Johnson says, smiling. “It did.”