How Isaiah Johnson Became the Most Athletic Cornerback Prospect in NFL History

Brandon Hall STACK

Isaiah Johnson is a scout’s dream.

At 6-foot-2, 208 pounds with a titanic wingspan, the University of Houston product has intimidating size for a cornerback. Pair it with a 4.40 40-Yard Dash, an 11-foot-1 Broad Jump and a 4.06 20-Yard Shuttle, and you’ve got a prospect with stifling length, track star speed and cat-like agility. Johnson’s Relative Athletic Score, a metric that compares how a prospects’ measurables compare historically with those in their position group, is the highest of any cornerback in NFL history.

A former receiver who changed positions mid-way through college, Johnson’s drawn comparisons to Richard Sherman.

“I really love the Richard Sherman comparison. That’s my favorite corner, I just study his game like no other,” Johnson says. He rightfully claims he’s faster than Sherman, but admits he has a ways to go to match the four-time Pro Bowler’s cerebral football IQ. If Johnson can accomplish that, there will be little holding him back from becoming one of the NFL’s most suffocating corners.

Not bad for a kid who contemplated quitting football in seventh grade. “My mom really helped me stay into football. I was tired of getting hit. I was like, ‘OK, these guys are getting bigger, faster, stronger, hitting harder.’ She was like, ‘No. You’re not stopping. You’re going to stay at this. You’re good at this,'” Johnson recalls.

Johnson’s mother long recognized his football potential. She bought him a bench press before he hit high school, and Johnson still remembers the confidence he gained from pushing a skinny barbell with 25-pound plates on each side. Once he weathered some athletic awkwardness in middle school, he became convinced of his own high ceiling, and dedicated himself to seeing just how far football could take him.

“I always set a specific goal coming into whatever I’m doing. I told my mom my freshman and sophomore year, and I promised her, ‘I’m gonna go to a Division-I school.'” Johnson says.

Johnson was a receiver back then, and his coverage-snapping speed made him a handful for defenses. He was also a standout in track and field, a sport he first took up in third grade. His 110 High Hurdles PR of 13.99 ranked second among all 2019 NFL Combine invites, while his 45-foot-8 Triple Jump PR ranked fifth.

“(Track) helped me so much with me being good at football,” Johnson says. “I started developing as a runner, as a jumper, (got) more explosive, more flexible in my hips.”

Johnson had lofty goals for himself, but college scouts weren’t exactly flocking to James Earl Rudder High School (Bryan, Texas). In Johnson’s three varsity seasons at Rudder, the Rangers won just four games. He endured an 0-10 season his senior year.

“The people who said I couldn’t do something were my biggest motivators. I still remember to this day, my freshman year, people saying ‘Man, people don’t go to D1 schools out of here, you might as well give up.'” Johnson says. “I believed if I did the right things and handled my business the right way and put the right energy into (it), I’d be blessed with what I wanted…I had friends doing all bad stuff. I stayed at home and stayed out of trouble and when I did have time to work, that’s exactly what I did.”

While Johnson didn’t post gaudy numbers until his senior season, his speed made him an attraction at college camps. Houston offered him during the spring of his junior year, and he committed shortly thereafter, blissfully unaware of the tumult his college career would entail. He redshirted his freshman season at UH, then the coaching staff who recruited him got cleaned out. In came Tom Herman and his staff, and in year one of that regime, the team pulled off a spectacular 13-1 campaign. Johnson flashed potential, but had trouble fitting into Herman’s ultra-regimented offense. When Herman and his staff bolted for Texas after their second year at Houston, opportunity came knocking. Johnson had spent three years as a receiver at Houston and had just 208 career receiving yards to show for it. As outgoing strength and conditioning coach Yancy McKnight was packing up his office at Houston for the final time, he ran into Johnson.

“Walking out, he said, ‘We actually thought about switching you to corner. You would be a high draft pick if you switched to corner and you got it done and got good at it.’ My roommate at the time, best friend, (former UH cornerback) Howard Wilson is declaring for the draft up in Major Applewhite’s office,” Johnson recalls. “I’m walking in saying I want to switch to corner as Howard’s saying he wants to leave. So it kinda worked out as a great opportunity for me.”

Initially, the transition went as well as one could hope. Johnson had played some defensive back in high school, and he picked things up quickly in spring practice. However, he soon learned live game action was a different beast. Opposing offenses entered games looking to pick on the new guy, and while his extreme athleticism helped mask some of his absent nuance and technique, there was only so much he could do.

“I would’ve came at me too. I was like a deer in headlights our first game,” Johnson says. “I had make-up speed and I could break on the ball and gets break-ups out of nowhere…(But) I didn’t understand whole concepts of defenses at the time. I just understood trying to make plays.”

It was an up-and-down season, but Johnson made several head-turning plays. He started just five games, yet tied for the team lead in pass break-ups (seven) and also pulled down two interceptions.

Last offseason, Johnson spent countless hours refining his technique and gaining a greater command of defensive schemes. The more he learned, the more confident he became. The more confident he became, the more plays he made.

“It was night and day. Understanding coverages, what my job was, (how I should be) covering receivers—everything was totally different my senior year compared to my junior year,” Johnson says. He started 10 games his senior season and racked up 66 tackles, seven pass breakups and two interceptions. It wasn’t a perfect season, but NFL scouts saw enough to label him as a potential diamond in the rough.

Over the last few months, that intrigue has only grown stronger. His blend of size, speed and physicality drew eyes at the Senior Bowl. To prepare for the NFL Combine, he turned to XPE Sports in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He had all the raw athleticism needed to demolish the combine testing, but his technique needed refining. He specifically cites his 40 start and his L-Drill as two areas where he made major strides.

“Typically with these long cornerbacks, and long athletes in general, they struggle to get to top speed quickly. Kind of a labored, long stride. That’s not the way it is with Isaiah. Super explosive. Powerful off the line. And he can maintain top speed well, too,” Matt Gates, Performance Specialist at XPE Sports, told STACK prior to the Combine. “The thing I think is gonna set Isaiah apart from some of the other long, big corners in Indy, is the way he changes directions. His hips are super fluid. He’s very flexible. He gets in and out of his cuts really quickly, which you don’t see a lot of the time with long corners like him.” Gates words proved prophetic, as Johnson finished in the top five among cornerbacks in the 40-Yard Dash, Broad Jump, 3-Cone Drill and 20-Yard Shuttle.

The magnificent performance attached a veritable rocket to Johnson’s draft stock, and there’s no telling just how high he’ll land come draft day. Prior to every game and practice, he finds a space in the end zone and prays. “(It’s) the most important thing I do every game, every practice,” Johnson says. “I believe whatever we do, we should give thanks for having the opportunity to do it.” It’s what he’s done with those opportunities that have led him here. When he was a no-name receiver on a high school team that couldn’t seem to win a game, he promised his mom he’d get a D1 scholarship. He did. When he was buried on the depth chart at Houston, he promised his mom he’d get drafted. It looks like that promise will be fulfilled, as well.

“Don’t let anybody tell you you can’t do something,” Johnson says. “I’m a living testimony to it. Went to a high school that won four or five games my whole career. I went to a college (that) had three head coaches, three coordinators and five position coaches. I switched positions. And I’m still here with an opportunity to get drafted.”

Photo Credit: Bob Levey/Getty Images, Thomas B. Shea/Getty Images