Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Keeping KJ: The Recruitment and Retention of Kerryon Johnson

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I would be a liar if I told you that I thought Kerryon Johnson was going to commit to Auburn. But he did, and it really is a sign of things to come for the recruitment of the Great State of Alabama. But, we have been here before....twice.... so let's all temper our expectation....for many reasons.

1) It's April 2014 and we are talking about a kid that won't be on any college campus until 2015. That's a long time and anything....ANYTHING....can happen between now and then. Specifically, the attempt to flip Johnson.
2) Though he appears to be QUITE the weapon, leading Madison Academy to back-to-back 3A titles, I have...and always will...temper my personal expectations of any high profile athlete who doesn't come from a 4A or larger school.

More on each of those later. First, let's talk a little about the player. He is listed at 6'1" 200 pounds and he looks every bit of that. He has wracked up yardage through the air and on the ground. He has returned punts. He has picked off passes. He looks the part, but more importantly, does everything that you would expect from the 2nd best player in Alabama. And, from 2:35 yesterday, he says he is going to Auburn.

Sound familiar? Well, it should. Recall what we said about Raashan Evans and his late flip...then reflip...to Bama and what that meant. You can read my thoughts in Recruiting Raashan. We saw the same type thing in several other big time recruits from the last few years. While Auburn is slowly getting a foothold in the state of Alabama, the truly elite players from the state seem to find their way to East Alabama more frequently than not. There was that moment, when Raashan committed to Auburn, that we all felt that Auburn truly was on equal footing with The Process. The numbers still looked solid for Auburn from the 2013 class, headed up by Roc Thomas and Tre Williams, but the loss of Evans on top of the other top heavy elite players cemented what we all kind of knew: the Tide still owned the state.

But, this year looks to be different already. The number 2 man in the state announced his decision at 2:35 yesterday that he would attend school on the Plains. I was shocked. You were shocked. Pretty much everyone was, but maybe we shouldn't have been.

Personally, I saw him as an FSU lock. He grew up an FSU fan. The 'Noles are currently on top and figure to be in the spotlight all season next season. Winston set the bar that the pipeline in Alabama for elite recruits doesn't run East-West, but can also go south. With FSU needing an elite back and showing the willingness to put young players on the field early, it looked to be a perfect situation for Johnson to bolt for warmer climates.

And, while Bama fans play the same card we have always seen them play in this situation..."Saban didn't want him", it may be more true than we would like to give them credit for. That doesn't mean that Saban didn't have an offer out for him. He did. And he wanted him badly, but not on offense. Saban wanted KJ for a safety. While you may not see that written "officially", think about this:  Since the days of Prothro, Bama hasn't fielded the type athlete on offense of the type that Johnson embodies. He can run between the tackles and he can stretch the field vertically, but he doesn't do just one or the other, as Saban would prefer. He does have great closing speed, superior safety size, decent hands, and an exceptional vertical leap. All of these things are the perfect measurables for an NFL talent safety at Alabama.

So, why did he choose Auburn when Auburn seemed like a big time darkhorse pick, despite being in the final 3?

Auburn offered him the opportunity that few places short of Eugene, OR can offer. Auburn has the offense to promise players to "get them the ball" in an infinite amount of ways. Madison Academy did a fine job of doing just this. If you watch his tape, specifically from 2013, you will see him between the tackles, in sweeps and pitches, in screen passing, in the vertical passing game, and in direct snap situations. Honestly, there wasn't a way that WASN'T used to get KJ the ball.

Additionally, Auburn has a direct need for this type player, just as we wrote about in "What Will A-Day Tell Us about the Offense". Auburn needs a flexible slot player. One that has the speed to take the jet sweeps, catch the ball in space, make defenders miss in the open field,  outrun the secondary, and occasionally be a true vertical threat. In the past year, Auburn has tried to used Louis, Bray and Reed, but neither have been able to do all the things needed. Louis has been deadly in sweeps, but inconsistent everywhere else. Reed has largely been an all around bust. Bray has been little used as well, though he has shown the ability to catch the ball, but not much else. The point is, you have 3 players listed and none of them can do all the things needed. KJ can do all these things AND line up in the backfield and run between the tackles.

I say that, but I caution that I am entirely sold on him being a swiss army knife quite yet. He has a lot of work to do in all phases of his game, if he wants to be successful. As a RB in the SEC, his pad level is terrible. If you want to live past September, you better realize that you have to get those pads much lower. You aren't playing a 3A defense who may have one guy over 200 pounds playing defense....who is lined up over your center. In this league, you won't find a player under 220 until you are in the secondary. Additionally, his vertical leap bailed him out on many down field catches. He was able to jump over most everyone and make catches with his body. He will have to improve on catching the ball with his hands. Lastly, I have real questions about his speed, which is why I believe he ultimately will play a more true slot role, which is still an upgrade from the 3 players listed. I don't ever see him lining up regularly in the backfield.

My biggest caution isn't something that he really could have helped. He played against inferior competition. I know that sounds demeaning, but just bear with me.While Madison Academy has won back to back championships, let us remember that this is a team who can RECRUIT players and plays at a 3A level. Like I said earlier, short of a down lineman, KJ has yet to be lined up against someone of equal physical size and/or prowess, much less a team filled with that type players. For this reason, you can attribute much of the highlight reel which shows him jumping over, stepping around, and stiff-arming competition at will. I wondered this morning at breakfast, how will he react when he meets #27 in spring practice in 2015? He won't be able to juke and run over the Star. How will he react to getting hit in the mouth by someone of similar size and speed?

So there you have it. I have stated my piece on being cautious. But I am not just cautious, I am cautiously optimistic, and not just because of his physical gifts. While it's certainly true that his recruitment is far from over, it shows that Auburn can and will remain in the minds of the top prospects in the state, regardless of where they ultimately end up. It is a great sign that the pipeline doesn't just run to Tuscaloosa with the rare stop in Auburn. And, it shows that Winston's defection was the exception....and not the rule.

The real battle now will be the retention of KJ, which, in my opinion, is harder than getting the recruit. After a decision has been made, especially a whole season away from signing date, it favors the teams NOT picked more so than the team whose hat was worn yesterday. For example, if Auburn falters this year, anyone can come in and proclaim them a "one and done" team. They are over the hill. They are on the decline. They can find and exploit all the chinks in the chain....real or imaginary. And, regardless of what type season the opponents have, they can claim both as positives for flipping. Have a championship run? Just imagine what it will be like next year! Have a terrible season? Tell KJ that he can come to Bryant-Denny and change it all. The pressure is truly building for Auburn to hold him in the fold until signing day...which is a LONG time away. How do they do it? Well, secretly I wonder if a coach at Madison Academy will be given a staff position in 2015. Sound funny? Ask Coach Malzahn how that works. Expect KJ to attend every home game this coming season. Expect him at every recruiting event. Expect him at Tiger Trek 2014. Why? Because if he is with the team, he isn't with another.

It can't be stated enough that Auburn is slowly...maddeningly slow....chipping away at the facade that Bama has, and always will, own the elite in Alabama. Yes, I am well aware that Auburn has flipped commitments only to have them flip back....and on multiple occasions a la Calloway, Yeldon, etc. But, as I stated earlier, at least Auburn is in the race to get these guys, which is a far cry from what we have seen in the last decade plus. I expect that no expense will be spared in making sure this happens, if no other reason than to send a message which really started last year when Auburn was able to hold on to Williams through a whole year. It says that Auburn is on the minds of the Elite. It says that we can be more than a signing day flip for some of these guys. It says that Auburn will recruit just as hard and work harder to retain the very best.