The duo will be competing for a starting spot at defensive end. But each player figures to get playing time no matter who comes out on top.
The 6-foot-2, 230-pound Johnson enters as the favorite after a solid spring and redshirt season in which he earned defensive scout team player of the year. He went on to have a remarkable summer in the weight room, and makes up for his lack of size with tremendous speed and athletic ability.
Although 22 months Johnson's senior, Richardson (6-4, 265) enters the mix as the new kid on the block. A product of Chaffey College in the California JUCO ranks, he has the experience of being in a Division I program after signing on with Illinois out of high school.
The chance to have two quality starters (rush ends Tyson Smith and Beau Coleman being the others) at both defensive end slots is something that's very appealing to defensive coordinator John Skladany.
"Hopefully we'll have two real quality guys at that position," Skladany said. "Shaheed has looked like he has a chance to help us this year, which is what we thought all along. He looks like he's just what we're looking for. Cephus really closed out the spring doing well. We're keeping our fingers crossed."
One thing is for sure--the competition between Johnson and Richardson will make for more improvement in the long run.
"Coming into two-a-days, it will come down to who wants it the most," said Johnson. "Him coming in as a J.C. guy, we're going to be competing for a position. I do think I've got a good chance of starting. I'm going to do what I have to do to get in that one-deep spot."
Added Richardson: "I just want to do my best during camp, give it my all and go from there. I'd like to get as much playing time as possible. The competition will make us both better players. It will push us both until the end. It's going to be good in a lot of ways. I already know that Cephus is a great player. If he wasn't he wouldn't be starting, so he's darn good. It's going to be great."
Looking across the defensive front and witnessing the feats of Smith and Coleman from the past year, Johnson believes that this could be the best crop of defensive ends the Cyclones have had in a while.
"This year we've got a lot of new guys, but I think our corps is getting even stronger," he said. "It will be stronger than it was last year. I feel that as long as we all work together and help each other and do what we need to do, then we'll have as strong a group as any team in the nation."
Whereas Richardson is new to the defensive system at ISU, Johnson has a year of valuable experience under his belt as a scout team player. Johnson saw action against Northern Iowa in the season opener last fall and recorded four tackles before going down with an injury that ultimately led to a medical redshirt.
Despite having the desire to play right away as a true freshman, the former Palm Beach Gardens (Fla.) High School standout accepted his new role and flourished both on and off the field.
"I didn't think it was tough," Johnson said. "When I first came, I looked forward to starting. I knew I had the talent and ability to do that. However, I said to myself that my academics came first and whatever it took I was going to worry about that first. Then I wanted to worry about football later. I didn't let redshirting bring me down. I just tried to get better on the scout team with practicing and getting myself better prepared for the next season. Now is my chance."
Giving up a year's worth of experience in Ames to Johnson, Richardson should get a boost with his size advantage. He has the physical size to play to play defensive end at the Division I level right away. Having been at Illinois previously has helped Richardson gain the understanding of what it takes to succeed at a high level.
"It gives me that much more confidence or an edge from other guys," Richardson said. "It gives me a better start, knowing where to go. I'm in pretty good shape. I busted my butt this summer and gave a lot of effort. I was out of shape when I first got to Illinois in the summer. I didn't know what to expect then, but that's giving me a better edge."
With Johnson and Richardson finally on the field together, only time will tell which path the two will travel next.