Tim Buckley Lafayette Daily Advertiser
Published 4:33 p.m. UTC Aug 10, 2018
When Kendall Johnson Jr. left the Nevada football team early in his senior year, the move was deliberate.
The Wolf Pack had made a head coaching change prior to that 2017 season, with Brian Polian out and Jay Norvell in.
Johnson subsequently lost the starting job he held for most of the prior two seasons with the Mountain West Conference program, and — after having also played as a true freshman — the St. Thomas More High product wanted to preserve his fourth season of NCAA eligibility so he could play elsewhere as a graduate transfer.
RELATED: After leaving Nevada, STM product joins UL football team
That place was UL, a team that recruited him — but did not offer a scholarship — the first time around.
Now Johnson is expected to start at cornerback for the Sun Belt Conference’s Ragin’ Cajuns, who open their season Sept. 1 against Grambling.
“It means the world, being back home, playing for this university — the university both of my parents (Melissa and Kendall Sr.) graduated from, and that I grew up watching and cheering for,” Johnson said. “It’s a great experience.”
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The Cajuns seem happy to have him, too.
“He’s provided us some stability over there,” first-year UL head coach Billy Napier said during last month’s Sun Belt football Media Day in New Orleans.
“I think he can do a lot for us. … He’s an older guy. A lot of ball experience,” new UL cornerbacks coach Zac Etheridge said back in the spring. “His IQ is pretty good, and he’s the kind of guy that you lean on for the extra coach in the room.”
‘I DEFINITELY HAD TO FINISH’
At Nevada, Johnson appeared in all 12 games and started two — at Arizona and BYU — as a true freshman.
He started 24 of the 25 games in which he played for a pair of 7-6 teams as a sophomore and a junior, including one that lost to UL in the 2014 New Orleans Bowl and one that beat Colorado State in the 2015 Arizona Bowl.
But then the coaching change was made, and Johnson was out of a starting job. In fact, he wasn’t even on Nevada’s two-deep for a season-opening loss at Northwestern in which he did not play.
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In September of last year, Norvell told the Reno Gazette Journal, which covers Nevada, that Johnson had “decided to retire.”
But that wasn’t quite true.
Johnson never intended to quit football. He always wanted to continue playing.
“I definitely had to finish it. … I feel like I owed that to myself,” Johnson said.
If he wasn’t going to see the field under the new staff at Nevada, however, he knew it would have to be elsewhere.
And after receiving his bachelor’s degree back in December, he was free to do just that as a grad transfer.
But the move meant leaving behind a team for which he had played three full seasons.
“Yeah, it was hard,” Johnson said. “It was hard. Definitely it was hard — because I wanted to finish out my time there.”
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A CRUSHING CALL
Even after leaving the Wolf Pack, Johnson went to watch games when possible last year. He hung around with teammates when he could.
But he also was busy setting into motion the process of picking where he’d play next.
One guess who was at the top on his list?
“Definitely UL was the first school I contacted,” Johnson said.
“I talked to my high school coaches, and they contacted UL, and Coach (Michael) Desormeaux (UL’s interim head coach before Napier was hired, and now the Cajuns’ tight ends coach) contacted me, and the rest is history.”
RELATED: A ‘Proud’ Cajun, Desormeaux feels blessed to stay at UL
At STM, Johnson caught 60 passes for 1,100-plus yards and 14 touchdowns as a junior and senior. He also had eight interceptions during those two seasons combined.
Tulane and Tulsa extended scholarship offers. UL Monroe, McNeese and Nicholls all did too. And, of course, Nevada as well.
But not UL and the staff of ex-Cajuns head coach Mark Hudspeth, according to Johnson.
“Was it crushing? … It kind of was,” Johnson said. “It kind of hurt a little bit. I’m not gonna lie.
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“But everything happens for a reason. At my time at Nevada, I had a great time and I met some great people — guys that I still talk to today.
“I experienced some great things over there,” he added. “I got to see a different part of the country. Traveled a lot. And met my girlfriend there, too, so that was cool.”
And now it’s on to a new chapter.
SHARING THE KNOWLEDGE
With corner Simeon Thomas drafted by the NFL’s Cleveland Browns, and in need of two new starting cornerbacks, UL and its new staff welcomed with open arms the recruit once spurned by the former one.
What it got was someone Cajun coaches soon realized could help not only on the field but off of it as well.
Etheridge, Johnson said, “definitely talked to me about just talking to the young guys, trying to mold them into different situations like two-minute or red zone — anything like that — and just help them out and show leadership.”
At UL in time for spring practice earlier this year, Johnson willingly has gone about doing just that.
He’s tried to assist newcomers including freshman corners Eric Garror and Asjlin Washington.
And he’s worked with Michael Jacquet, a junior receiver who made the move to cornerback in the spring and now is expected to start opposite of Johnson when UL’s season opens Sept. 1 against Grambling.
RELATED: With Jacquet injured, Napier addresses UL corner depth
“It goes a long way,” Johnson said of such mentorship.
“When I was a young guy, older guys talking to me about certain situations in the game — it helped me a lot, and I’m still using it today.”
Jacquet, for one, has been an open-ears student.
“I’m just trying to help him out,” Johnson said, “with different ins and outs of the cornerback position — just reads, and the keys, and just different technique stuff.”
“I get a lot of mental things from Kendall. You know, Kendall has been playing for a while. He’s very experienced,” Jacquet added. “I ask him about … little things he does, and he shares those with me. So, his bringing his knowledge is gonna help my IQ.”
Johnson didn’t arrive at UL in the best of shape — Napier said this week that his conditioning is better now — but he did come toting plenty of wherewithal.
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Etheridge, the position coach, took notice of that right away.
“He’s worked every day to get into position to put himself to play, and he’s been making plays in the field. And it shows,” Etheridge, himself a former defensive back at Auburn, said during spring drills. “With the experience he does have, it translates from the meeting room to the field.”
“Experience always definitely helps,” Johnson added, “especially in this game — just having the game reps, and just being in situations that young guys or other players may not have been in.”
‘A LITTLE SITDOWN’
One experience Johnson did not want to face was telling his Nevada teammates that he didn’t plan to play out the 2017 season.
But he knew he had to, so those closest to him were invited to his home there for a chat.
“We had a little sitdown and talked about it,” Johnson said, “and they were like, ‘I understand what you’re going through right now.’
“They were helpful, and they supported me, like friends do, so it was good.”
The group was so tight that Johnson returned to Nevada to see some of them graduate earlier this year.
“I had a great time (there). Met some great guys,” Johnson said. “And my teammates — we got really close. Because we were all from different parts of the country.
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“I had a roommate from Hawaii, a roommate from California, a roommate from Utah, a roommate form Illinois — Canada, too.
“We were really a close group, and I wish I could have finished there — but, like I said, everything happens for a reason, and I feel like I’m in the best fit now.”
Whatever tough times he might have had to endure at Nevada last year are nowhere to be felt with his hometown Cajuns.
Back in Louisiana, he’s letting only the good times roll.
“At first I thought it would be just kind of ‘pressure’ for me,” he said of being at UL, in front of family and old friends. “But, really, it’s great. It’s kind of like a stress relief for me, being home.
“It’s what I’ve been doing my whole life, so it’s been relaxing and it’s allowed me to play more free.”
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