While recruitniks and Hokies watched with bated breath as prized five-star recruit TreVeyon Henderson announced his commitment to Ohio State, Will Johnson was getting ready to make his choice.
Although his visit to Blacksburg didn't prompt any banners hung outside houses, Johnson still felt a connection to Virginia Tech.
"They made me feel at home there," said Johnson.
The Leaonardstown, MD product chose the Hokies over Minnesota, Boston College, Pitt, Louisville, and Maryland among other programs.
The 247Sports Composite ranks Johnson as a 3-star (0.8405) safety, 68th nationally, and the No. 27 overall player in the state of Maryland for the 2021 cycle. And last season at St. Mary's Ryken HS, Johnson earned recognition as WCAC Metro Conference Defensive Player of the Year.
Based on what head coach Aaron Brady said, Johnson might've won the award on the offensive side of the ball too. The playmaker routinely drew multiple coverage in a part-time wideout role. In fact, Johnson played safety, linebacker, wide receiver, quarterback, running back, kick returner, and punter ... all in the same game.
At Virginia Tech, Johnson is a prime candidate for the whip linebacker spot — a hybrid between a safety and an outside linebacker. "They think that's going to fit me really well," said Johnson. "Just my physicality and my speed together, it's the perfect match."
"I think he's a football player," said Brady.
"The overall person he is as a team player is phenomenal. At the next level that's a big deal. He doesn't care about how many stars or how many likes he gets. Sure, he'll tweet out offers and was excited to share his commitment to Tech, but that's not what it's about for him. He just wants to play ball."
The first thing that jumps out to you when you watch Johson play is his physicality. The word violent comes to mind.
"You can't teach that," said Brady. "Some guys have it and some guys don't. Some guys just really love hitting people."
But, it wasn't always like that. Early in Johnson's recruitment, college scouts didn't think he was physical enough as a defender.
"We knew [he was physical], but it just didn't show up on film," said Brady.
Brady said it was actually an interaction with former Hokies defensive coordinator Bud Foster that flipped the switch for Johnson. "One thing coach Foster said to him last year that resonated with him this past season was 'You need to be cracking pads out there.'"
Johnson pairs his demonstrative physicality with blazing speed in the open field. At a recruit camp this summer in Blacksburg, the 6-2" 200 pounder clocked a 4.5" 40-yard dash. His speed shows up on film too. He flies in on safety blitzes, but can also drop back to play a more 'center-field' safety role. It's the kind of versatility, size and speed combination required at the whip.
From the get-go as a freshman, Brady knew Johnson had Power Five potential.
"I had a lot of division one players over time, so to see the things he did that were different and special; you start to notice those similarities with guys that go on to play big time college football. Then he had the work ethic, and he really cares about school."
It was one play in particular, however, that really made Brady's jaw drop.
"Freshman year first scrimmage up at the football Hall of Fame stadium in Canton, he may have been 14 years old at the time," said Brady. "He caught a pass against Canton-McKinley who's a big-time team. He made a one-handed catch that was just stupid — I mean it was stupid crazy. You saw him as a freshman and were saying to yourself 'man, that kid's gonna be a beast.'"
Tech was fortunate to retain Johnson's interest after its defensive coaching changes.
"They couldn't tell me upfront who they were gonna hire, but they did say that whoever they hired was gonna be pretty equal in comparison to scheme and stuff like that," said Johnson. "Obviously with losing Bud you're losing arguably the best defensive coordinator to ever do it, so you can't just replace that. But I feel really good about coach [Justin] Hamilton being promoted."
The feeling appears mutual from Hamilton.
It's one thing to get a commit...but it hits different when it's one that fits our culture, our scheme, our mindset and our #HardHatMentality #GetInAndLetsGoooooo 🔥🔥🔥🔥— Justin Hamilton (@coach_ham) March 31, 2020
"Once it got to his sophomore year a lot of college coaches were coming to watch him play," said Brady. "They'd say 'he's just as good as the guy we got now.' And it's not going to stop. When he gets to college he's just going to get better. He's a really hard worker. He's a relentless worker."
"Once guys saw him and got around him they started to realize 'woah, this guy's is special.'"