Johnson sheds freshman label and serves as standout for Madison football

By: Mike Moore | Madison - Park News | Published October 5, 2011

MADISON HEIGTHS — A quick scan across the practice field on a normal Monday afternoon provides an easy opportunity to look right past a certain player.

Standing next to the team’s linemen, he hardly fills their shadows.

Warming up with the skill-position players, his appearance is that of a junior varsity player who mistakenly wound up on the varsity field.

But once the ball is snapped, once the actual football portion of practice or a game commences, Juan Johnson becomes a force that is impossible to miss.

“To us, he’s not a ninth-grader anymore,” Madison Heights Madison High coach Drake Wilkins said. “He’s just one of the guys.”

Johnson is one of the smallest, and certainly the youngest, guys on the Eagles’ roster, but the freshman has been turning heads since the very first time he stepped onto the field.

And now, there’s no looking back.

“I’ve been watching him play the past few years; I know his father and coached his sister, and so on. So he’s a kid I’ve known and have always been excited about coaching. But he still surprised me right off the bat,” Wilkins explained. “I mean, I knew the type of athlete he was; I just couldn’t help but wonder how long it would take him to adjust to the high school level.”

Apparently not long at all.

Wilkins said he entered the team’s first 7-on-7 scrimmage of the year with a good amount of intrigue as to how Johnson would hold up. Certainly, the freshman would look like, well, a freshman against other teams’ receivers.

“He came away with two interceptions,” Wilkins said with a laugh. “I knew right then he was someone we could count on, a guy that looked like a returning varsity starter. Really, he hasn’t missed a beat since.”

“I’m just trying to keep things simple,” a quiet and humble Johnson said. “This has all been fun for me. Crazy, but fun.”

As of press time, Johnson had played in four games this season for Madison (3-2 overall), missing one with injury.

He leads the team in rushing with 373 yards, a 7.31 yards-per-carry average and five touchdowns. He’s also completed one pass for 29 yards. Defensively, he’s third on the team with 34 total tackles, has a 67-yard interception return and a fumble recovery.

In a Sept. 23 win against Madison Heights Lamphere, Johnson had his best game to date, rushing for 141 yards and three touchdowns on just 12 carries.

His 38 points scored are second only to senior receiver Danny Larkins (56), who also started as a freshman four seasons ago.

“The key for him is to never played scared, just show up and play,” Larkins said of Johnson. “Show people there’s a reason you’re up with the varsity.”

Asked what makes Johnston so special, Larkins said “his speed and power. He’s run some guys over this year.”

Listed at just 5 feet 6 inches and 145 pounds, Johnson’s speed may be his greatest and most obvious asset, but Wilkins was quick to credit his football IQ.

“Athletically, he’s probably mature beyond his years, but that’s because of the way he understands the game,” Wilkins said. “He knows the game and has the reaction to things like a three or four year starter.”

Johnson’s been around Madison for years, even before suiting up for his first game.

His older brother, Deandre, starred for the team as recently as 2008, when he rushed for 2,170 yards and 31 total touchdowns while leading the Eagles to an undefeated regular season and trip to the state quarterfinals.

Juan, who wears his brother’s No. 8, has heard the comparisons.

He’s set many personal goals, including scoring 100 career touchdowns, and team goals, such as winning three state titles. He believes both are attainable because of what he saw Deandre do during his career.

“I’d like to do everything he did, just better,” the younger Johnson said with a laugh.

Wilkins refused to put any limits on his top running back, instead saying his career potential rides on his work ethic alone.

“If he has that focus to stay hungry and keep improving, he could be great,” Wilkins said. “There’s so much that can slow down a career, but Juan has the chance to be a special player, maybe even one of the best in the entire state.”