And if Kirk Johnson has anything to say about it on the field the next two years, Cal will have hell to pay.
Johnson, who has an eerie resemblance to former Longhorn RB Jamaal Charles with the ball in his hands, was invited on a visit to Cal in April 2014, along with his younger brother, Collin Johnson, a 6-4, 195-pound, 4-star 2016 receiver (and Texas commit) at San Jose (Calif.) Valley Christian.
Cal coaches offered Collin on the visit, but not Kirk.
“Don’t get me wrong, I think my brother’s going to be a first-round draft pick,” Kirk Johnson said. “But they were pretty much telling me I wasn’t good enough.
“I was pissed. I couldn’t sleep that night. I snuck out of my house. It was raining. I didn’t care. I ran to this hill about 10 minutes from our house – and I ran that hill until I couldn’t run it anymore.”
That determination and work ethic, combined with crazy athletic ability, is why Kirk’s father - former Texas All-American defensive back Johnnie Johnson – thinks his son has what it takes to be a special running back for the Longhorns.
“When you look at the elite players, they have a unique approach and motor – and Kirk has that motor and then some,” Johnnie Johnson said.
BURNT ORANGE BLOODLINES
Dad ought to know. After his All-American career at Texas, Johnnie was a first-round draft pick of the Los Angeles Rams in 1980 (and still holds the Rams’ record for longest INT return – 99 yards vs the Packers in 1980). He went on to play 10 years in the NFL with the Rams and Seahawks.
Johnnie was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2007. During a toast to Johnson at the induction by then-Texas coach Mack Brown, Brown praised Johnnie. Then, Brown turned to a 10-year-old Kirk and 9-year-old Collin, who were also in attendance, and said, “Who knows? Maybe you boys will be the next greats.”
“As a kid, you take it to heart, especially coming from a great coach,” Kirk Johnson said, reflecting on Brown’s words eight years ago in New York. “We used to joke about it. But now it’s kind of coming true.”
One day after Kirk Johnson’s furious, embittered, I’ll-show-Cal, rain-soaked, hill-charging, Kirk, Collin and Johnnie were on their way to Austin for Texas’ 2014 Junior Day, where Kirk and Collin were both offered scholarships by Charlie Strong.
“It was a great trip - besides me having a little cold from that late-night run in the rain,” Kirk Johnson laughed.
As soon as Kirk and Collin got back to San Jose, Calif., from Austin, Cal offered a scholarship to Kirk – in addition to the offer already extended to Collin.
“Suddenly, the whole Cal staff was calling me begging to take another visit,” Kirk said. “But I was done with Cal. At that point, they were just wasting my time.”
When I pointed out to Johnson that Texas plays Cal the next two years, including a home date this season on Sept. 19, Johnson replied almost with a chuckle, “Oh, I know. I’m very aware of that.”
Added Johnnie Johnson about the Cal snub, “If you light a fire like that in Kirk, watch out.”
THE NEXT JAMAAL CHARLES?
Johnson showed everyone he has freakish physical skills by winning the SPARQ MVP honors at the Oakland NFTC with a score of 117.42 a year ago.
At 6-0 and 207 pounds, Johnson has run a 10.6 in the 100 and a 4.38 in the 40. Kirk credits his legendary youth track coach Burnett Lux with teaching him how to break through walls of limitation while training for the 100, 200 and 400 as well as relays.
“My youth track coach was no joke,” Kirk said. “Some kids were crying because he gave us grown-man workouts from the time we were 10, 11, 12 years old. There was no stopping. He taught me what it meant to have heart and get things done.”
It doesn’t take long watching Kirk’s film to see his ability to make decisive cuts – a la Jamaal Charles – and ability to run away from defenders. Kirk averaged 8.4 yards per carry and ran for 33 touchdowns in three seasons at San Jose (Calif.) Valley Christian.
However, you have to look hard at Kirk Johnson’s film to see his great hands catching the ball out of the backfield. That’s because Johnson was the feature back in a Wing T offense that has been running the same plays for more than 20 years.
“Our rivals would call out our plays, because they were the same ones we’ve been running since their dads were playing against us,” Kirk Johnson laughed. “So when we ran ‘Power,’ there’d be three tacklers on you like that. But it probably made me a better runner.”
And that’s what jumps off the film when you watch Kirk Johnson – great feet, balance and lateral quickness as well as an uncanny ability to change speeds, stop, start and make tacklers miss in the hole from point-blank range. And then the burst once he clears the first wave of tacklers.
Back to Johnson’s pass-catching ability for a moment.
When your younger brother is 6-4 and 195 pounds with a wise-beyond-his-years-ability to beat press coverage and get open, the older brother competes to make sure he can catch the ball, too.
STUDYING MARSHALL FAULK
And so the most underrated part of Kirk Johnson’s game are his hands.
Texas RB coach Tommie Robinson didn’t miss that fact.
Robinson compares Johnson to former Rams RB Marshall Faulk, one of the best pass-catching backs in the history of the game (Faulk’s 39.1 yards receiving per game is still the NFL’s all-time best among RBs).
“After T-Rob (Robinson) said Kirk reminded him of Marshall Faulk, I contacted Ray Sherman, the receivers coach at the Rams, who is a good friend of mine,” Johnnie Johnson said.
“I asked if he’d provide some cutups of Marshall? And the Rams were kind enough to provide Kirk a whole series of cutups of Marshall.”
Added Kirk Johnson, “I’ve been watching those cutups non-stop while waiting for the (Texas) playbook. Apparently, they are still working on the play calls and signals of the new offense.”
Up until he saw the cutups of Faulk, Kirk Johnson drew inspiration from Marshawn Lynch, who, like Johnson, is a Bay Area back. (Lynch is from Oakland and played at … Cal.)
Lynch cemented his Beast Mode nickname with a 67-yard, 8-tackle breaking run late in the fourth quarter of a close playoff game against the New Orleans Saints in 2011. Kirk Johnson had a 10-tackle breaking run against St. Francis his senior season that set up a TD inside the 5-yard-line.
“The backs I look up to most are Marshawn Lynch and Marshall Faulk,” Kirk Johnson said.
Added Johnnie Johnson, “What jumps off the screen when you’re watching Kirk is that he plays angry. He plays with a chip on his shoulder.”
Finding those highly motivated, determined, focused players is Charlie Strong’s gift as a recruiter, Johnnie Johnson said.
“That Junior Day (in 2014) was our first meeting with Charlie (Strong),” Johnnie Johnson said. “And after that meeting, I knew all the success he had at Louisville was legit. He develops the man, the student and the player. And he’s one of the best I’ve ever seen at developing that combination.
“When you have 10 players drafted who you recruited from a 22-person class (in 2011), you’re showing everyone you know what talent looks like and how to develop it.”
On his visit to Texas, Kirk got to meet his father’s teammate with the Longhorns – Heisman Trophy winning RB Earl Campbell – as well as Pro Bowl RB Jamaal Charles.
“I look up to Jamaal,” Kirk said. “I got to talk to him a little bit. I asked him to follow me on Twitter, and he did. Now, I talk to him a little bit as a mentor.”
Johnnie Johnson thinks his son will end up resembling a running back other than Jamaal Charles.
“Todd Gurley,” Johnnie said. “Gurley is 6-1 and 225 pounds with the ability to run over you, around you or catch the ball, and I think that’s where Kirk, who is 6-feet and 207 pounds, ends up.”
Johnson is joined in the 2015 recruiting class by Rockwall RB Chris Warren III, whose father also had a prolific NFL career (Chris Warren Jr.), as well as RB Tristan Houston. Johnson said three running backs in the class will only help Texas.
“We learned from Ohio State’s quarterbacks last year how important it is to have depth at key positions,” said Johnson, who has bonded with Warren and others in UT’s recruiting class as part of an ongoing iPhone group chat.
2015 RECRUITING CLASS ALREADY BONDING
Johnson said the 2015 class is already a tight-knit group.
“We’re all ready to get there from Day 1 and work hard,” Kirk said. “That’s the kind of guys Coach Strong is looking for. We just want to take care of business on and off the field.”
Added Johnnie Johnson, “When Vance (Bedford) and I were at Texas, we played at a consistent level. Everyone knew what the expectation level was. Charlie (Strong) has them well on their way, and they may be closer than people think. Charlie is a master recruiter, and he showed it with this latest recruiting class. This group has a chip on its shoulder.”
Until Kirk heads to Austin for the summer on June 1, Johnnie Johnson will try to keep Kirk, Collin and daughter Camille, a 2017 rising basketball and volleyball star, from getting too competitive with each other.
“Camille is probably the most athletic and intense of all,” Johnnie said. “She played in a basketball tourney in San Diego yesterday, and they lost, and I was having a hard time sitting in the car with her because she was so pissed off.
“The competition between Kirk and Collin, that’s on a day to day basis. There’s no fighting between the two, there’s just competing. Never seen two guys go at it like they do.
“Trying to keep peace in the household is like trying to manage two lions presiding over the prairie. They are so close, everything burns hot in competition. But if you mess with one, you mess with the other.”
And it’s not lost on the Johnson household that both Kirk and Collin will be at Texas when the Longhorns road trip to Cal in 2016, when Kirk will undoubtedly tap into his rain-soaked, running rage stemming from that failed visit to Berkeley.
“That should be interesting,” Johnnie smiled.
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