Johnson starting in all-star game
Dorian Johnson's season has been quite a ride and now he's ready to cap off an unforgettable season.
The Belle Vernon Area offensive tackle has spent the last week at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Fla., preparing with some of the United States' best high school football players for the Under Armour All-American football game.
The game, which will be broadcast at 5 p.m. today on ESPN, is the perfect close to Johnson's season.
“This has been a great experience,” Johnson said from his hotel. “It was definitely a good decision to come down here. It's a great thing to help me prepare for the next level of my career ... a great way to top everything off.”
Johnson, who has committed to play at Pitt, will don his No. 64 jersey for the Nitro team, which will be wearing white during the game. Johnson said the teams will board buses around 11 a.m. to leave for St. Petersburg. The game will be held at Tropicana Field.
“I'm real excited,” Johnson said. “I've never played in a dome before. I can't wait to play.”
At the time, Johnson said he hadn't been told if he's in the starting lineup, but that it doesn't really matter playing in an all-star game.
“We're going to rotate every series or every two series,” Johnson said. “I know there's going to be good playing time.”
According to ESPN.com's Football Recruiting Nation, Johnson had been named a starter Thursday evening.
The Nitro team is coached by former NFL head coach Steve Mariucci. Johnson's offensive line coach is Dave Levy, also a former NFL coach.
“It's a great experience just being able to take in everything they've had to offer,” Johnson said of working with the other coaches. “I've just added everything they've been teaching into whatever I'm doing.”
Johnson said thanks to his experience and work ethic in high school, he's been ready for what he's experienced this week.
“I was well prepared for this,” he said. “The things we do in practice and being in the weight program at Belle Vernon, it's really helped me out. Coach (Aaron) Krepps really helped me get to where I am.”
The future Pitt Panther said the competition is the biggest detail that he has had to get acclimated to while in Florida.
“By far, the competition is tougher. Our practices are pretty intense,” Johnson said.
He added that it was rare to have a person lined up across from him who could match his 6-6, 285-pound frame.
“These kids are real good. Real strong and real fast,” he said.
National recruiting sites have taken notice of the work Johnson has done in Orlando. Many have reported that Johnson has been a bright spot during practices, calling him a “steal” for the Pitt football program.
Sources have said that Johnson is the offensive tackle who best handled defending top-ranked defensive end Carl Lawson, a Georgia recruit.
“In pass protection I've had to focus on my technique more,” Johnson said. “I take it a little slower. The game and these preparations are a lot more mental.
“Lawson is kind of tough, but I think I've been doing all right.”
Joining Johnson on the offensive line will be North Allegheny guard Patrick Kugler, a Michigan recruit. Central Valley wide receiver Robert Foster, an Alabama commit, will start for the black-suited Highlight team.
“It's nice to see Pennsylvania well-represented down here,” Johnson said.
Johnson's mother and three sisters have made the trip to Orlando to be with him during this step of his career, something Johnson is grateful for.
“I think it was important for them to be here,” he said. “You need some support and it's nice to have them to talk to during our free time. Plus, they got to go to Disney World. I'm glad they've had the chance to share this opportunity.”
A different perspective
There's another member of the Dorian Johnson fan club who landed in Orlando Wednesday.
His high school head coach, Aaron Krepps, made the journey to see Johnson play in the game.
Krepps said it's a different perspective being there as a fan and not as Johnson's coach.
Johnson added that it will be “weird” not seeing and having Krepps on the sidelines to correct him.
“It didn't really hit me until today when I was standing behind the fence watching the walkthrough,” Krepps said Thursday. “It's definitely a different feel ... just standing behind the fence watching. I'm not used to it. It's cool, though, it's just different.”
Krepps was impressed with what he saw on the field beyond that fence.
“Those boys are big up front,” Krepps said. “There's a lot of athletes out there with a lot of speed and a lot of size.”
The Leopards' coach said he couldn't be prouder of Johnson.
“I couldn't be happier and more proud of him,” Krepps said of Johnson. “He gets to showcase his talents on this stage. It speaks volumes for the type of athletes that are here.”
The 2013 Under Armour All-American Game features athletes from all around the United States.
“As a coach, I'm very proud. To be down here among the country's best ... I'm excited to be down here to watch him play,” Krepps said.
Krepps said that as deserving as Johnson is of the honor, he put in the time and earned his spot.
“His work ethic is what got him here,” Krepps said. “This is a situation where you're grinding here for a few days, there's new terminology and new teammates. I think the experience he was able to get by working so hard made the transition smooth for him. He'll be able to adapt at a quicker rate.
“From what I've heard and read, he's had a good week down here. He was a bit of an unknown coming in because he didn't do a lot of the combine circuit that a lot of these other guys did. This is a great opportunity to get further evaluated by scouts. He's impressed a lot of people here and solidified his position as one of the best.”
The access to NFL coaches and some of the most decorated high school coaches in the country will benefit Johnson, Krepps said.
“His talents and hard work have gotten him this opportunity, which will do everything to benefit him,” Krepps said. “He's being coached by elite coaches. This is an experience that he can look back on in life and help him learn his craft.”
Feeling the love
Even though Johnson is nearly a thousand miles from home, he feels the support he's getting from the Belle Vernon area and said he's appreciated all the support.
“I've been paying attention to Twitter, I'm feeling the love,” Johnson said of his supporters. “I've been able to read a lot of tweets and messages from my friends back home. It's an awesome feeling. I actually broke my phone, though, but I am still seeing everything.”
BVA Athletic Director Jesse Cramer said he couldn't be happier for Johnson and the type of man he's become.
“He's a gentle giant,” Cramer said. “He doesn't say much. He's very humble and laid back. I've watched him since he played for the Washington Township Redskins in midget league. I'm so proud of him. I hope when he gets to college he keeps the same work ethic and keeps his grades up. I'm sure he will. Pitt did good. They got a steal when they got him. He's a great kid, he's very well liked. I'm sure a lot of the kids will be rooting for him and watching.”
BVA Principal Greg Zborovancik echoed Cramer's opinion.
“He's really a great role model for the rest of the kids in the school,” Zborovancik said. “He's not one of those guys that has a big, cocky attitude. He sits with everyone else and is just one of the boys in the school.”
Zborovancik feels like Johnson will benefit from the step up in competition he's seeing in Florida.
“I think he needed to see that he could hang with the big boys,” he said. “He's with the best of the best. That's where he deserves to be.”
The principal added announcements will be made to remind students and BVA staff of the game time.
“I'm glad to have the opportunity to play in the game,” Johnson said. “It's time to play now. I feel like I've been down here forever and it's only been a week. I'm ready.”