And boy, is he glad he did.
The true freshman safety's spring arrival allowed him to adjust to college and work through a serious case of homesickness – and, in the process, establish himself in the Tigers' secondary.
Johnson made his college debut last week against South Carolina State, and figures to play an important role this fall as a backup safety.
"Ultimately I had to look at the big picture and what I had to do," Johnson said this week. "I was trying to come here and be an impact player as a freshman, so I had to get the plays down. Being back home in high school wasn't helping me at all."
The Orangeburg native - rated as the nation's No.28 safety prospect by Scout.com – graduated a semester early from Orangeburg-Wilkinson High School and enrolled at Clemson in January.
He went through spring practice with his new teammates, but started hearing from high school classmates about all he was missing in his final semester of high school.
"I missed a whole semester of high school," he said. "My friends were calling me and telling me stuff they were doing at home, and I was wishing I was there."
Johnson admits he was "real homesick" and "wanted to go home."
So he leaned on the Tigers' support staff for help.
"I just talked to the coaches, talked to Jeff Davis and James Trapp, they really helped me," he said. "They don't go out there and teach plays, but I look at them as coaches because they really help with the mental part of it. I can go in there and talk to them about anything. They keep it real, give me the advice I need to make it through."
He also spoke with head coach Dabo Swinney, who referred him to senior tight end Darrell Smith.
"He told me Darrell went through the same thing," Johnson said. "He just gave me some real advice I needed to hear."
With the homesickness quelled, Johnson made real progress while getting a jump-start on fellow freshmen.
"I felt like if I would've come in later, I wouldn't have been able to perform as good as I could have in fall camp," he said. "(The homesickness) probably would have affected me a lot. Coming in early just helped me in getting to know my teammates, getting to know the coaching staff, getting in the playbook a little early."
Originally, Johnson expected to play in the opener against Georgia, but coaches opted to use junior Robert Smith and sophomore Travis Blanks exclusively at safety.
Both made their first career start at safety against the Bulldogs, and Johnson said he understood why coaches rolled with them the entire way.
"It's not like I was mad," he said. "I was a freshman. They felt like they couldn't trust me out there yet because I'm still young, young-minded, I still have a lot to learn. The people that were in front of me, they got it done, I was happy for them."
Against South Carolina State, Johnson played much of the second half alongside fellow freshman Jayron Kearse, and did not record a tackle. He said he "felt like I played good for my first game, but could have done a little better."
He missed several tackles and was part of a coverage bust that allowed S.C. State's final score, a 51-yard Tyler McDonald touchdown catch-and-run.
Johnson said coaches told him he did well for his first game, but pointed out his mistakes as well.
"It taught me I need to prepare better," he said. "With missed assignments, it'll make me prepare a little harder, study a little more. I've got to treat it like a class. I didn't really study how I should have. I need to study a little harder."
This season will likely be all about adjustment for Johnson, but now that he feels like he belongs, he wants to prove the same thing to his coaches.
"I wanted to go out there and show them they have a player they can trust, that I'm someone that will go out and give it my all. Robert Smith is in front of me right now, and he gave me a lot of encouragement. He said, ‘Don't worry about that, you're a freshman. You're not always going to play but when you do you can go out there and show them what you can do.'"
Johnson making the adjustment
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