Immediately upon losing to Lafayette Christian in the Louisiana state semifinals during the 2020 season, Newman coach Nelson Stewart was approached by his star receiver AJ Johnson. The two embraced and the first thing Johnson said has stuck with Stewart since the Greenies walked off the field.
"It's time to go get this done," Stewart recalls. "I think that's a mindset and he sure has done everything right so far."
Johnson is one of 12 commits in the 2022 LSU class and is only just scratching the surface of how good he can really be. After having to sit his sophomore season because of a transfer rule, he wasn't able to take the field for the Greenies until 2020-21 season as a junior.
But Stewart saw in that year in which Johnson couldn't compete, he witnessed just how special of a prospect that Johnson was. He devoted himself to his body, taking over practices as a member of the scout team, all the while building a close relationship and on field chemistry with quarterback Arch Manning.
"I thought the way he presented himself in his year of ineligibility really spoke volumes. He couldn't play JV, couldn't play varsity, he could just work scout team but he was a beloved guy," Stewart said. "His energy on the sidelines, he was able to develop great chemistry with Arch and I think that it's been a steady climb."
Because of quarantine ahead of his first eligible season with the program, the Newman offense started behind the eight ball and the focus very quickly became on the running game. For Johnson, that meant having to devote time to an unglamourous aspect of being a receiver, his blocking.
"The thing that really stood out the most was his blocking. I don't even know how many practices he had, it wasn't many but his ability to drive guys, sometimes into the endzone and into the ground, he took pride in the little things," Stewart said. "Great teammate and we ran a 21 personnel heavy pandemic offense where it was based on the run game. He's just the consummate team guy.
"He makes highlight reel catches look easy and when you talk about his size, 6-foot-3, 210 pounds and he's big enough to play inside or outside as a slot or wide. He comes in every day and I think he's going to be a much better football player next year."
The focus this offseason for Johnson has been proving he can be a multi-faceted receiver. More time with the players and more time to develop that bond with Manning will allow Newman to really open and spread out the offense in 2021 Stewart says.
He's expecting a big senior season from Johnson, one that will include moving him in the slot while maintaining the vertical, outside threat Johnson has become to really take advantage of his size and strength at the position. That starts with improving his physical traits, which Stewart said has been a goal of his since his junior season at Newman came to an end.
"Bigger, faster, stronger. He wants to put on size, strength, the ability to get off man coverage. He works on his quickness and is great catching the football but he wants to be a powerful wide receiver. This is a guy that is squatting with the o-linemen, he takes pride in strength training," Stewart said. "He wants to be a great teammate, he never makes excuses, doesn't call for the ball, he's always got a smile on his face and loves his teammates. You have to be in a constant state of growth and he was not a finished product. As good as he was on the outside, we're gonna move him all over the field and round everything out before he gets to LSU."
Rounding his game into form will be the biggest on field goal before he gets to Baton Rouge. Stewart says that through conversations with offensive coordinator Jake Peetz as well as receivers coach Mickey Joseph, he believes LSU is the perfect landing spot for Johnson's talents.
"He's going to be able to move in the slot because I think that's one of the things if you stick him with coach Peetz, he could factor in there because he's that big and fast," Stewart said. "Obviously going to LSU, it's a rareity you find those 6-foot-3 kids that move like that, with hands like that and can go all over the place. Mickey Joseph has been on him his entire career. He knows what he has in him and watched every snap so I think it's a perfect landing spot."