Isaiah Johnson has been playing football for less than two years. That’s all it took for the 6’5” 270 lb. DE to attract attention from BCS programs along the east coast. Johnson, a star basketball player at Red Lion Christian Academy in Delaware, transferred to Eastern Christian Academy just across the border into Maryland to pursue a career in football. But Orange Nation can thank one familiar person for steering the class of 2013 commit to Syracuse.
Good ol’ Crazy Eyes strikes again. He out-Schiano’d himself on this one. Johnson tells The Fizz Schiano unintentionally directed him to SU.
“He came to [Red Lion Academy], and he saw me working out for basketball, and he said, ‘Son, if you step on the football field, I promise to recruit you.”
But Schiano did not come through with that promise. Johnson says Rutgers barely recruited him. RU wasn’t even one of the five schools that offered the New Castle, DE native. But shortly after, Isaiah’s high school coach Dwayne Thomas persuaded him trade in his basketball shoes for cleats. And it worked out. Johnson grew up a huge Syracuse fan because of his love for the basketball team. He admired Jim Boeheim and his 2-3 zone. He always wanted to play in it, as he was always a defensive minded forward on the hardwood.
Sure enough, at an open practice in Elkton earlier this year, the Orange coaching staff made its way down to Maryland to take a look at some of the local talent. Johnson’s first connection with the Orange was serendipitous. He happened to casually walk past Defensive Backs Coach Donnie Henderson who was talking with a parent.
“I heard him say, he was from Syracuse, and I then I said, ‘Woah! Can I get your card?’ And we just made eye contact, and there was a connection from there.”
The rest is history. Syracuse and the entire coaching staff including Doug Marrone invited Johnson to a camp earlier this summer, liked what they saw from the big DE and offered a week later. Isaiah said he was glad Schiano said what he said, or else he wouldn’t be playing football and perhaps, not even attending college. It’s an opportunity Johnson is not taking for granted. Financial issues would have forced him to take out many student loans if he decided to attend college this fall with no athletic scholarship. He’s truly blessed to be given the opportunity to receive an education at a four-year university.
The Fizz talked with Johnson about how his season had gone this year. The Honey Badgers unfortunately only played five games this year, mainly due to that fact that no schools wanted to play Eastern Christian. The school is entirely online based, working with National Connections, an accredited online institution. Although the work that Johnson and the students do is entirely legitimate, the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association refused to sanction Eastern Christian’s football team. Teams would be scheduled to play the Honey Badgers on a Friday, for example, before dropping out on a Thursday, Johnson said.
“As a senior, it’s really frustrating, it really is. You want to play as much as you can. We don’t have any playoffs to go to, so basically every game is our last game, and we play our hearts out like that.”
Many have criticized the school as some two-bit operation without validity. But Johnson told The Fizz Eastern Christian defeated the reigning national high school champions, Don Bosco Prep. The game was counted as a pre-season exhibition, but it shows that on the field these guys are the real deal. Johnson and his teammates also had to play every game on the road this season because they had no home stadium.
Even still, the big DE and the rest of the Honey Badgers practiced four days a week in anticipation of a game every Friday. They still did everything a normal team would do in practice: scrimmages, agility drills, foot drills, etc. This year Johnson has certainly turned the corner on the football field. Last season, his first playing football, he had one simple move: a bull rush. Johnson learned he couldn’t bank on his size alone to get to the quarterback. He’s perfecting the tiny elements of his game that will take him to the next level.
“[I’ve improved] using my hands and using my length. I’m real long, my arms are real long, my legs are long. So, I use that to my advantage to shed the blockers and get to the tackles faster than I usually would.”
He’s working on swim moves, rips and other defensive lineman tricks. It’s a real testament to his work ethic and will. In just two years time, he picked up the game of football, garnered offers from schools like Syracuse, UConn and Temple, and will now be taking his talents and size up to The Hill.
Johnson will be taking his official visit to SU the weekend of December 1st. He had previously been on campus for the UConn game (a terrific victory to see), and was at the Meadowlands when Syracuse clashed with USC. Johnson is gong to graduate in time at Eastern Christian to enroll at SU in January. Just like Zach Allen, he’ll partake in spring practices.
Johnson is pumped to get up on campus and meet his fellow class of 2013 recruits like Allen. More sweet music of the broken Fizz record, Allen got in touch with Johnson earlier this year, and the two remain close. Allen was the one who introduced other ’13 recruits to Johnson by giving him their numbers to all keep in touch. Isaiah is fired up to play with the ‘Cuse Clique.
“I’m looking forward to it big time. Even when me and Zach talk, [it feels] like we’ve already been brothers for so long. I felt as though we had that connection the first time we texted. We get along very well.”
It just speaks volumes to Allen’s character. This entire class will come in next year and want to play and compete with one another. They’ll all be on the same page. It’s an incredible dynamic that’s taken place. And Johnson embraces that total team philosophy. He’s a sharp and smart kid, who will do anything needed for the good of the team. All he wants to do is win.
Johnson is also looking forward to playing for the “Big 3.” It’s what he calls the three most inspirational guys on the SU coaching staff: Marrone, Henderson, and Defensive Line Coach Tim Daoust. He says the trio has made a bigger impact on his football career than he could have ever imagined. He’s also already made some friends with current Orange lineman like Deon Goggins and Eric Crume, (in addition to RB Jerome Smith, who lives in the next town over in Delaware). The fiery D-Line unit has been fun to watch this season.
“They just work. I like how [Coach Tim Doust] talks to them, how he coaches them. He’s a great coach. He’s exciting, he’s fun, he brings flavor to the game, and he’s just not one of those coaches that let you fail. No, he wants you to succeed and he wants to play you.”
There just no other way to say it, Johnson is extremely excited to get up to Syracuse. These are the type of players you want representing SU. He is thoughtful, and very well-spoken and can bring the heat on the gridiron.
As discouraging as it is, Johnson and the Honey Badgers have no more games scheduled this year. But the DE is still working hard, and there’s one thing he’ll be focusing on before he gets to campus in January.
“Strength and conditioning. I don’t want to go in there unconditioned. No, I want to be ahead of the game. I want to work twice as hard. As I said before, my goal is not to redshirt. As a true freshman, I want to be in the rotation.”
With someone like Myles Hilliard’s Syracuse future in jeopardy, Johnson may be able to work himself into the rotation next season. If he does turn a little of that weight into muscle, his sheer size alone will get him some playing time. Johnson says he’s starting a diet to lose a few pounds.
Johnson will be at “The Linc” for the SU-Temple game Thanksgiving weekend as well. It’s certainly been a wild ride for the 6’5” 270 lb. basketball star turned college bound DE. But it’s one that Johnson wouldn’t trade for a thing.
Posted: Kevin Fitzgerald