MCGILL: @HerdFB Freshman Johnson Follows in Footsteps of Walk-ons
The Word on the Herd -- Nov. 16, 2017
By Chuck McGill
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – Five football seasons ago, Nazeeh Johnson was a freshman high school football player who ran the 40-yard dash in five seconds flat.
My, how things have changed.
The Marshall University defensive back, a walk-on who starred at Millbrook High School in Winchester, Virginia, will play this Saturday at UTSA coming off a breakout performance in the Thundering Herd’s 30-23 win against Western Kentucky last week. Johnson recorded five tackles and returned an interception 45 yards for a touchdown, which led to him being named that game's Defensive Champion by the coaching staff.
“It was a pure moment for me to watch him do that,” said Malik Gant, a fellow defensive back who, like Johnson, came to Marshall as a walk-on.
Johnson, a 5-foot-10, 180-pound redshirt freshman, has played in nine of Marshall’s 10 games and made one start, primarily playing nickel when defensive coordinator Chuck Heater has five defensive backs on the field. Johnson has 21 tackles – two for a loss – and one sack, and is one of two players (along with sophomore cornerback Chris Jackson) who has at least one interception, one pass breakup and one fumble recovery this season.
The interception came late in the third quarter last Saturday when WKU quarterback Mike White fired a pass to his left and Johnson stepped in front of the receiver and raced untouched for the score. Johnson defended the slot receiver on the play, but let his man go.
“If (the inside receiver) goes vertical then I re-route him and then I move to (the outside receiver),” Johnson said. “Once I saw (the outside receiver) sit down, I got one.”
It was a touching moment for Johnson, who said he chose Marshall because of the tragedy involving the football team’s plane crash on Nov. 14, 1970. Each player wore a helmet decal in honor of a person who perished in the crash, and Johnson had the decal for the grandmother of one of the team’s student videographers, Fisher Cross, on his helmet.
Johnson was born on July 17, 1998 in Fairfax, Virginia. He was a two-way player at Millbrook, where he made the Conference 21 West first team as a defensive back and second team as a running back. He finished his final high school season with 86 tackles, four interceptions, 1,093 rushing yards and 22 total touchdowns.
But it took time for Johnson to find a perfect fit at the next level. That is when he went to camp at Marshall and caught the coaches’ eyes. Johnson’s high school coach, Josh Haymore, knew Herd defensive assistant J.C. Price, who recruits Virginia.
“I wanted to be part of something bigger than myself,” Johnson said. “Marshall is definitely the place to do that.”
Although they are only sophomores, Gant and Jackson have been mentors to Johnson in the secondary. Gant also has the experience of coming into the program as a walk-on and elevating himself to a scholarship player.
“Being a walk-on is the hardest thing and he knew that,” Gant said of Johnson. “I talk to him every day. We have a harder road. When you see your little brother doing that, it’s great.”
The game against WKU showcased what walk-ons can do within the Marshall football program. Three of the top four tacklers were current or former walk-ons – linebacker Chase Hancock, Gant and Johnson – and former walk-on receiver Nick Mathews established new career highs in receptions (four) and receiving yards (46).
“It was walk-on day,” Gant said. “As soon as they called for (Johnson) to be the defensive champion, I turned to (senior defensive end) Davon Durant and said, ‘The walk-ons are looking good for our team!’
“That’s why when I see walk-ons who aren’t on the field yet, I tell them, ‘Look at us.’”