MONROE, LA - Already with a criminal justice degree in hand and coming off a breakthrough season, many expected Louisiana Monroe running back Josh Johnson to declare early for the 2020 NFL Draft.
After all, Johnson had just amassed north of 1,200 rushing yards and scored 11 touchdowns for the Warhawks. The 5-foot-9, 215-pound back earned Second-Team All-Sun Belt recognition and finished 13th in the nation in rushing yards, averaging nearly 110 yards per game and putting his name on the map as one of the nation's premier runners.
But Johnson felt he had more to prove and not just as an athlete. Along with opting to return for his senior season, he enrolled in Louisiana Monroe's criminal justice graduate program, further preparing himself for life after he hangs up his football cleats someday.
Unfortunately, Johnson's choice to stay another year didn't work out quite as planned. With the nation and world reeling from a pandemic, he contracted the COVID-19 virus before the start of a season unlike any other in college football history.
"I'll say it was super tough, honestly," Johnson said. "I'm just really glad we got a chance to play football, even though it was tough. I had COVID the first week. I had come back that Thursday right before we play Army and of course, it's super tough to try to get in shape, try to get game ready two days prior to the game. So I mean, it was super tough. We had a lot of people down. You didn't know who was going to start each week because of COVID."
Struggling to bounce back from the virus, Johnson suffered a hamstring injury later in the season that further hindered his play and caused him to miss a handful of games. He wound up playing in only eight games, producing subpar numbers with 321 rushing yards and four touchdowns while seeing his yards per carry dip nearly three whole yards to 3.6.
Despite the disappointing season, however, Johnson still believed he had a strong chance of being drafted in the later rounds last weekend. Far from the only talented player who was negatively impacted by the COVID-19 influenced season, he had been told he had a late round grade. But understanding there was a possibility he may not hear his name called, he made sure his agent knew where he wanted to go way back in January if that happened.
"I told my agent like four months ago, I said 'man, I want to be a Seahawk,'" Johnson reflected. "No matter how I work out, I want to be a Seahawk."
Sure enough, Johnson's request to his agent was destined to become reality. Though he wasn't drafted as he hoped, the final outcome may have been the best one he could have asked for. The Seahawks quickly made an offer to him as a priority undrafted free agent and he wasted little time signing the dotted line.
Why Seattle? Though lived on the other side of the country thousands of miles from the Pacific Northwest, Johnson grew up admiring former Seahawks superstar Shaun Alexander, who starred at Alabama before being drafted in the first round and eventually winning NFL MVP in 2005. He also modeled his game after Marshawn Lynch, as "Beast Mode" became his favorite player as he worked his way up through high school and into college.
With Alexander and Lynch being his idols, the chance to be able to don a Seahawk uniform was simply too good to pass up.
"The Seahawks, they were always one of those teams that no matter what they were offering, no matter this, no matter that, it was definitely one of those teams [I wanted to play for]," Johnson said.
On the surface, Johnson's decision to choose Seattle over other potential suitors may seem a bit baffling. The team re-signed starter Chris Carson in March, former first-round pick Rashaad Penny will be back healthy, and the trio of Alex Collins, DeeJay Dallas, and Travis Homer will also return, creating a crowded backfield with a vast array of skill sets. It won't be easy for an undrafted player to crack the depth chart.
But much to the delight of coach Pete Carroll, Johnson has never been one to fear or shy away from competition. While he holds great respect for Carson, Penny, and all of the Seahawks other backs and understands he faces an uphill climb to earn a roster spot, he believes in his own talent and expects to hold his own once he takes the field starting with rookie minicamp on May 13.
"We were hoping to get drafted in the late round, but of course, it wasn't God's plan. I'm not mad at that," Johnson remarked. "But the Seahawks, they were definitely one of those top options for me and my agent to choose from. Despite the depth, I'm the type of person - I like competition. No matter how the depth is, you're going to have to go anywhere and compete."
Since agreeing to terms with Seattle, Johnson has been preparing for his first NFL opportunity by working out in the morning. Due to draft prep, he put finishing his graduate degree on hold until later this summer. Additionally, much to the delight of 12s everywhere, he has joined several group chats on social media and responded to as many messages as he can, quickly becoming a fan favorite.
How much has the fan base warmed up to Johnson? With Seahawks Twitter functioning like the "Wild, Wild West," he's received everything from videos showing him sporting Lynch's No. 24 as a created player running over defenders on Madden to photoshopped images with him donning his icon's number. Seeing all of these creations firsthand, he has been blown away by how passionate 12s are about their football team.
"Honestly, it's just been fun. I mean, Seahawks fan, they're super active," Johnson smiled. "I think I'm a part of like three or four group texts on Twitter. I try to respond to... They just be coming in like crazy, so I just try to respond to as many as I can. I'm not the type of person where I see a DM [direct message] and ignore it. I try to at least get back - even if it's not right now, even if it's late - it is just the type of person I am."
Johnson has enjoyed the opportunity to speak with fans, but he understands the real work will be coming soon. Like many undrafted players before him, he will be counted out by many, especially considering the abundance of talent Seattle already has in the backfield. He will be starting from rock bottom on the depth chart and will have to make the most of every on-field opportunity granted to him to have a shot, including on special teams.
But while he doesn't expect to be the second coming of Marshawn Lynch and won't pretend to be - with the exception of sporting a similar visor and purple mouthpiece, of course - he's confident in his own abilities and sees his running style as a perfect fit for the Seahawks' scheme. Following in the footsteps of players such as Doug Baldwin, Jermaine Kearse, and Poona Ford, he plans to bring some Beast Mode-style "swag" back to the backfield as the team's next breakthrough undrafted signee.
"I'm a guy that's willing to separate himself from the pack. Wherever they want me, I'm going to give them 110 percent. In order for me to make the 53 [man roster], I'm going to have to beat somebody on special teams... I know my role. I know what I have to do to make it. And that's what I'm willing to do."