Football

Wake Forest’s Kevin Johnson sees big future for himself in NFL

Wake Forest cornerback Kevin Johnson closed in on Utah State receiver JoJo Natson on Sept. 13, 2014, in Logan, Utah.
Wake Forest cornerback Kevin Johnson closed in on Utah State receiver JoJo Natson on Sept. 13, 2014, in Logan, Utah. The Associated Press

Wake Forest cornerback Kevin Johnson has never been a big guy, which explains why he was so satisfied with his measurements — 6 feet, 188 pounds — at this year’s NFL Scouting Combine.

Johnson, who was listed at 175 pounds last season, weighed only 155 pounds his senior year of high school, which — believe it or not — was a significant difference from where he was a high school freshman.

“Coming into Wake Forest, I started seven games as a true freshman,” Johnson said. “I had ability, I was just a late bloomer. My freshman year of high school, I was 5-feet-tall and weighed 96 pounds. So I’m just growing every day. I’m still growing now.”

NFL teams will certainly be happy to hear that. Because there’s zero doubt about Johnson’s cover ability.

A three-year starter, Johnson racked up 44 tackles, one interception and six pass breakups in 12 games in 2014. And while his ball production isn’t outstanding, his quick hips and ability to mirror receivers is, and will certain attract teams seeking cover men in today’s pass-happy league.

“I’m the best cornerback in the draft,” Johnson said. “I think I’m a lockdown cornerback.”

He’s been tested plenty, too. Throughout his Wake Forest career, Johnson has faced the likes of Clemson’s Sammy Watkins and DeAndre Hopkins, who were both first-round picks, and now he believes he should be a first-rounder, too.

“I think I have excellent feet, hips, ball skills,” Johnson said. “I’m a competitor. I’m a student of the game and I’m a playmaker.”

Johnson’s competitive nature shone through during the Demon Deacons’ loss to Florida State this season, when he made a throat-slashing gesture after breaking up a pass.

Johnson was not penalized for the demonstration, but he heard about it from the coaching staff.

“It’s something we talked about with the coaching staff, and I wasn’t going to do it again,” Johnson said. “I was a little too emotional out there. … I like to play with a swagger when I’m out there. I did a gesture I shouldn’t, (and I) have learned from that. As you play and get experience, you learn to channel that emotion.”

His competitiveness, he says, is also why it was so tough for him to skip the Senior Bowl in January. Sure, he was working out at the time, in hopes of gaining weight for the combine, but Johnson said his representatives advised him to sit out to protect him from injury.

“It was more than just weight gain,” Johnson said. “There was risk involved (in) doing things like that. I was advised not to play in the game … (and) I really wanted to play in the game. I just finally made the decision it was best not to play.”

Not that Johnson expects the decision to affect his draft stock too much. At 188 pounds, teams will be much more comfortable with his bulk and ability to handle the run, and Johnson has assured them that his vaunted cover skills won’t be affected.

“I haven’t had any drop off,” Johnson said. “I’ve gotten better.”

To reach Terez A. Paylor, call 816-234-4489 or send email to tpaylor@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter @TerezPaylor.

Inside the 2015 NFL Draft: cornerbacks

From now until the draft begins on April 30, The Star will take a look at each position.

▪ What the Chiefs look for: The Chiefs, by and large, prefer big corners with certain dimensions: at least 6-feet tall and 31-inch arms. The Chiefs showed a willingness to bend on their preferred size dimensions when it comes to nickel corners, however; last year’s starter there, Chris Owens, was only 5 feet 9 but was feisty and aggressive. Regardless, corners have to be confident, bordering on cocky, to handle the mental side of being beat by some of the world’s best athletes. The ideal corner also possesses quick hips to turn and run with receivers and is adept at press-man coverage (that’s where the arm length comes in). Recovery speed, change-of-direction skills and ball skills are also important, for obvious reasons.

▪ Chiefs’ needs: With Ron Parker expected to move into more of a full-time role at safety, the starting job opposite Sean Smith will be open for competition. Jamell Fleming, an early-season addition from the Ravens’ practice squad, and 2014 third-round pick Phillip Gaines are currently the front-runners, while Marcus Cooper — a former starter who was banished to the bench last season — could also factor into the mix. Aaron Hester and Deji Olatoye are developmental corners who are currently on the roster.

▪ Sleeper: Oregon State’s Steven Nelson is shorter than the Chiefs like (5 feet 10) but there’s no doubt he can play. He’s aggressive, competitive and plays bigger than his size. He also has enough athleticism to hang with bigger receivers on the outside. He could potentially give the secondary a little attitude, as well.

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