On Nov. 22, Marshall County High School's Stephon Johnson played his final high school football game. The very next morning, he jumped into the recruiting process with both feet. He attended Vanderbilt's final football game against Tennessee at the Nashville Coliseum as an invited guest. He spent time with the Commodore coaching staff.
He liked what he saw-- very much, in fact. Shortly afterward, Johnson accepted a football scholarship offer from the Commodores.
For many who follow recruiting closely, Johnson was an unfamiliar name who suddenly appeared on Vanderbilt's commitment list. But Marshall County Head Coach Mac McCurry assured VandyMania recently that Vanderbilt is getting a complete player in the 6-3, 185-pound senior from Lewisburg-- a physical defensive back / wide receiver who is athletic enough and smart enough to contribute as a true freshman.
"He was a great run stopper, and he was very physical for us," said McCurry. "He'd come up from the safety position and make plays for us at the line of scrimmage. And he was obviously a great pass defender-- he had eight interceptions. He knocked lots of passes down, and had some great hits over the course of the year.
"But he also was a tremendous receiver on offense. He was also one of four team captains."
Johnson did it all for Marshall County, which breezed through its region and went three games deep into the playoffs on its way to an 11-2 season record. The Tigers' only losses came to David Lipscomb (eventual 2A state champion) and to Crockett County in the 3A state quarterfinals. The Tigers rolled over opponents by an average score of 35-12.
On defense Johnson played free safety, and his eight interceptions on the season were tops for the entire Midstate.
Great players come up big in big games, and Johnson's biggest game came in the Tigers' region showdown vs. Page. It was his two interceptions, one returned 35 yards for a touchdown, that sparked a 23-6 win and sealed a third straight Region 5-3A championship for Marshall County.
"He was the quarterback of the defense," McCurry said. "He was so cerebral. Our defense is fairly complicated, and he ran things from the safety position. A lot of times he would basically call the opponents' play based on formation and alignment."
Though a gifted receiver, Johnson was not heavily utilized in McCurry's run-based, wing-T offense. His senior stats are not that impressive-- less than 20 catches for less than 300 yards. But McCurry told Border Wars' Scott Kennedy that Johnson is nonetheless a dangerous weapon as an open-field receiver.
"He'll throw a stiff-arm on someone, break a tackle, and he's gone," said McCurry. "He's a force with the ball in his hands and gets a lot of yards after the catch."
McCurry says the extraordinarily bright Johnson also possesses a scholastic aptitude that will serve him well both on the field and in the classroom at Vandy. McCurry declined to name the three other schools that had offered Johnson scholarships, but quickly added, "Academics sold him on Vanderbilt. He felt like [attending Vanderbilt] was a great opportunity, possibly even life-changing.
"He's a very mannerly and polite young man who can mix well in any setting."
McCurry was unsure whether Vanderbilt had designs on Johnson as a receiver or defensive back.
"[Vanderbilt coaches] said they see him possibly helping in more than one area. They feel like he could go several different directions. They didn't say either offense or defense, but that's the way I took it. They felt like he was fairly versatile, and for us, he certainly was.
"In his junior year he took a hiatus from wide receiver because we needed him to play quarterback-- and he threw for almost 1,000 yards.
"He's got the mental capacity to pick up schemes in a hurry-- which I think is what holds some true freshmen back. He'll pick up any scheme pretty quick, so I think that will give him the potential to play early."
Now that football season is complete, Johnson is focusing his energies on Coach Jeremy Qualls' Tiger basketball team. As team captain, the graceful Johnson is contributing 12 points and eight rebounds per game so far this season. Last year Johnson and the Tigers advanced to the state championship game, before losing to Memphis-Ridgeway and Derrick Byars.
Besides Johnson, McCurry has another football player being sought by colleges-- 6-3, 241-pound defensive end Nick Fender. A Mr. Football finalist as a lineman in 3A, Fender has been timed at 4.68 in the 40-yard dash, has a 30-inch vertical jump, and power-cleans 300 pounds. He made 93 tackles, nine sacks and 12 tackles for loss this year as a rush defensive end. "And most people ran away from him," said McCurry.
Fender attended several Vanderbilt games this fall as an unofficial visitor. "Vanderbilt is still talking with him," said McCurry. "He and Coach [Robbie] Caldwell are still talking-- in fact I believe they talked last night.
"I really don't know how close he is to a decision. Stanford's supposed to be in here today to talk to him."
While Fender has been named to a number of postseason All-State teams, Johnson has been largely ignored. Why didn't Johnson receive the postseason acclaim that Fender is getting?
"I would say the biggest thing was, for the longest time everyone saw [Johnson] as a basketball player," said McCurry. "It looked like that was going to be the direction he would go in. Then, he was a good wide receiver as a sophomore, with 400 or so yards receiving, but he wound up departing from that position for a whole year. So I think that probably hu