It's an easy leap for speed freak

Ely cornerback Patrick Johnson is set to vault onto a bigger stage at LSU.

By JOEY KNIGHT, Times Staff Writer
Published January 27, 2008

Patrick Peterson initially sensed the oldest of his five children would be destined for football greatness when he gave the kid his first handoff.

Patrick Trashad Johnson was, oh, about five minutes old.

"I gave him a football when he came out on the operating table, and it stayed in his arms for a while," Peterson recalled. "He didn't move his arms or nothing. It was a little bitty football, but it was funny, it never moved until the hospital staff moved it."

Eighteen years later, Johnson stands as arguably the most fleet, physically imposing cornerback this state has ever spawned.

"I tell you what," said James Jones, Johnson's coach last season at Pompano Beach Ely, "if they let high school kids jump to the NFL, he would be one of them."

But the evolution wasn't completed until Peterson took the football out of his son's hands.

Johnson, LSU commitment and USA Today national defensive player of the year, didn't play his sophomore year at Ely.

"His grades had slipped all the way down to ineligible (status), but he got them back up before the time came to play football," Peterson said. "We couldn't teach him to do things at the last minute and think it's going to work out. ... A lesson learned, you know."

By several accounts, Johnson (6-foot-1,190 pounds) embraced that tough love instead of resisting it. For every highlight clip he has produced, there's an anecdote about his selflessness. For every gasp evoked by his athleticism(4.37-second 40-yard dash,43-inch vertical leap), there's a testament to his leadership.

Some typical teenage brashness and fickleness - what college has this kid not wanted to play for - complete the Johnson character profile.

"Very level-headed," said Jones, the ex-Florida Gator and NFL running back who left Wharton's coaching staff last year to take over his alma mater. "His parents led him up right."

Nature took care of the rest.

Johnson's 40-yard speed is corroborated by veteran state recruiting analyst Larry Blustein, who adds Johnson bench presses around 275 pounds.

At Ely, he played roughly a half-dozen positions, including quarterback when injuries pressed him into duty behind center.

Though most offenses threw away from him, he still had five interceptions. Offensively, he led Ely in rushing (391 yards), ranked second in passing (312), had eight catches for 114 yards, returned a punt for a touchdown and even did the placekicking.

But he made his mark as a lockdown corner, sometimes inflicting pain by simply jamming receivers at the line.

"If you ran away from him, his pursuit angle was so tough he would run and tackle the guy," Fort Lauderdale Stranahan coach Joe Redmond said. "So we felt to keep him at home, we just had to run right at him or throw at him.

"We completed a couple of passes on him, but he made our guy pay the price."

Blustein calls him a "freak of nature," pointing to a camp last summer at USC. Within an hour after deboarding from his first plane ride, Blustein says, Johnson ran a 40 time of 4.47 and reduced touted Trojans recruit D.J. Shoemate "to rubble."

"He's one of a kind," Blustein said. "We've had some great football players in this state. He's as physical as any I've seen, and I've been doing this 38 years. For his size, to be that physical and that dominating, he's three years from the NFL."

And five months from LSU, with which he will sign after decommitting from Miami. Johnson graduated early from Ely with the hope of enrolling in college this month and joining the Tigers for spring practice. But those plans were botched when the NCAA Clearinghouse began looking into his most recent ACT score - a considerable leap from his first two tries.

Both Johnson and his father have said they believe Florida brought the discrepancy to light. As a result, Johnson is sitting out again, at least for one spring. Only this time, it's not his character being molded.

It's his detestation of all things Gators.

"I'm not upset," Johnson told the New Orleans Times-Picayune. "Florida made an issue about the ACT score. They're cowards. They had to go behind my back. But that's okay. We play them this year (Oct. 11 at Gainesville)."

Joey Knight can be reached at (813) 226-3350 or jknight@tampabay.com.

Recruiting terminology

Signing day: The first day athletes may sign binding national letters of intent, which this year is Feb. 6. Coaches are not allowed to comment on recruits until they have signed.

Oral commitment: A nonbinding announcement by athletes disclosing the school they intend to attend. Players may change their minds until they sign a letter of intent.

Recruiting analysts: Self-proclaimed experts who rate prospects and sell the information.

All-American: A prospect named to a national all-star team by a publication or analyst.

More online

Rivals.com: footballrecruiting.rivals.com.

Max Emfinger: www.maxemfingerrecruiting.com.

ESPN: insider.espn.go.com

PrepStar: www.prepstar.com.

Student Sports: www.studentsports.rivals.com.

Allen Wallace and Jamie Newberg:recruiting.scout.com.