Johnson High on UNC

North Carolina is slowly but surely making up the ground with Sterling Johnson, a four-star defensive tackle from Clayton (N.C.) Cleveland. He returned to campus on Saturday for the Tar Heels' practice.

"They're pretty high right now," Johnson said. "I've been talking to some of their commits. [UNC] is close to close to home. And on top of that, I like what Coach [Larry] Fedora is doing. And I really believe that once North Carolina can get back to that defense they had when Coach [Butch] Davis was there and combine that with Coach Fedora's offense, I legitimately think they can challenge anybody in the ACC."

Despite camping at UNC last summer and having a mother who works on campus, the Tar Heels offered Johnson, who now holds over 20 offers, later than most other schools. The belated offer initially stung. However, the 6-foot-4, 267-pounder now says that when he announces his top 12 schools in late April, UNC will make the cut – along with Alabama, Clemson, Florida, Florida State, and Tennessee.

"It's from tradition to the culture to the town, and also the education and the facilities," Johnson said. "But overall, it comes down to the people, because wherever you player Division I football – with the exception of a few smaller schools – most schools have top of the line facilities and good fans. But it's the people in the actual program that make it what it is and make it the right fit."

Because of his mother, Johnson has made countless visits to UNC. However, Saturday marked his first Tar Heel practice.

"It was most definitely intense," Johnson said. "I went to NC State's [practice] last year and theirs was sort of intense, but it wasn't to the point where North Carolina's was. At North Carolina's, there was a lot of yelling and cursing. It wasn't because they were mad; it was because they were striving for greatness. They weren't okay with being 7-6 last year. They really want to make that turn around and put themselves on the map. Whenever you get that intensity and cohesiveness in a group, that's really when you can take your team to the next level."

Johnson didn't focus exclusively on the defensive linemen during the practice. Instead, he elected to soak in the practice as a whole and check out every position group. Regardless, he was able to get a good sense of Keith Gilmore as a coach.

"[Gilmore] kind of reminds me of my high school coach – Coach Riley," Johnson said. "He's calm but he's also strict but he's not overly strict to where you can't say one thing and he'll just blow up at you. That's what I like about him."

Johnson's schedule forced him to leave practice early. Thus, he was unable to meet individually with any of UNC's coaches on Saturday. However, he did converse with Dan Disch, Gilmore, and Ron West on the practice field and during breaks in practice.

"Coach Disch, oh man he's funny," Johnson said. "They were all saying they want to reach back to the late ‘80s/early ‘90s to how Miami was when all those players decided to stay in-state and they did great things. They were saying we could do the same things at North Carolina. They said imagine if all the talent that is going to the Tennessees and Clemsons and Georgias were to stay in-state."

Although he's being recruited on a national scale, the notion struck a chord with Johnson.

"I believe it's true," Johnson said. "But then at the same time, sometimes it's hard to fathom such a thing coming true. Like, it's hard to think that if me and a couple other guys stay in-state, then we can really get to 10 wins and do this and do that. But then at the same time, you think to yourself ‘Man, that would be great. Imagine how you'd look in college history.'"

This Saturday, Johnson will travel to South Carolina for its junior day. He's also working on scheduling trips to Florida, Florida State, Miami, Ohio State, and Texas.

Sterling Johnson Profile


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