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Making The NFL Draft Case For Brandon Johnson

Every Penn State fan knows Austin Johnson, the massive defensive tackle who could be the first Nittany Lion off the board in April’s upcoming NFL Draft, but another Johnson has his eyes on a selection as well.

Despite recording only four rushing attempts for 23 yards during his career, Brandon Johnson was a regular on special teams and served on the 2015 Leadership Council. But that alone isn’t enough to earn him a shot in the pros; there are countless graduating college players who have NFL dreams. Here’s where Johnson sets himself apart: He’s an absolute freak in the weight room.

Johnson caught the attention of the many scouts on hand (31 of 32 franchises were represented) at Penn State’s Pro Day two weeks ago in Holuba Hall, posting ridiculous testing numbers during his one and only chance to impress league representatives. Johnson’s 39.0 inch vertical jump would have tied him with San Jose State’s Tyler Ervin for second place among all running backs at February’s NFL Combine had he been invited.

Johnson also clocked a 4.43 40-yard dash, which would have been good enough for third place in his position group at this year’s combine (behind only Georgia’s Keith Marshall and Ervin), at 6-foot-2, 228 pounds. That kind of size/speed combo could, at the very least, be put to good use on a variety of special teams units for an NFL squad.

Though some have stated that the pressure associated with each program’s respective pro day can’t come close to that of Indianapolis, it should be argued that this year’s premier prospects — like Christian Hackenberg — at least had a second opportunity to drive up their draft stock. Guys like Brandon Johnson simply don’t have that luxury. Sure, the venue is obviously familiar, and they’re surrounded by teammates, but that doesn’t mean pro day is any less stressful for the fringe prospects.

The Harrisburg native played his high school ball and ran track at Middletown but missed his sophomore and junior seasons due to injuries, which meant there wasn’t much film for college coaches to comb through when offering scholarships. But Johnson found a home at Penn State as a walk-on midway through the sanctioned 2013 season when the Nittany Lions were nearly desperate to field a practice roster.

Even if Johnson goes the undrafted free agency route, which is a strong possibility, that doesn’t mean he couldn’t catch the eye of enough coaches to warrant his signing. There were 22 running backs selected in last year’s draft, and coincidentally, the 174th overall pick was fellow Harrisburg product Cameron Artis-Payne, who played in Super Bowl 50 with the Carolina Panthers. Though Johnson and Artis-Payne played on different classification levels (the Auburn Tiger suited up for Harrisburg High), meaning they’ve never squared off before, it would be fun to see the two meet on a Sunday or Monday night.

It’s crazy to think that the last Penn State running back to be drafted was Evan Royster, who went 177th overall to the Washington Redskins in 2011, but perhaps a franchise will take a shot on the elite athleticism of Brandon Johnson.

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About the Author

Ethan Kasales

Ethan’s a senior journalism major who grew up in Lemont, a few minutes from campus. When he’s not covering Penn State sports, you can usually find him golfing or teaching snowboarding at Tussey Mountain. Feel free to email him at [email protected].

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