Packers pass-rush prospect C.J. Johnson looking to defy odds
GREEN BAY - Two years ago, the Green Bay Packers introduced to the National Football League a Division III quarterback from Wesley College, a private school in Dover, Delaware, with a total enrollment of 1,345 students.
Joe Callahan caught their attention with gaudy statistics in what finished as a record-setting career. He threw for 5,068 yards and 55 touchdowns in his senior season alone to earn the Division III version of the Heisman Trophy and then, after participating in both a regional combine and the University of Delaware's pro day, Callahan signed with the Packers as an undrafted free agent.
Callahan played well enough to earn a spot on the 53-man roster, a feat that surprised many in an era when rostering three quarterbacks is rather luxurious. He remains in the league as a member of the Philadelphia Eagles, and his journey is proof positive that coach Mike McCarthy's annual message to rookies is legitimate.
“I think 30 percent of the National Football League last year was free agents (and) 15 percent of our team,” McCarthy said. “ … So every man that steps on that field today has an opportunity to be part of the (organization). That’s the way we approach it and we coach them all the same.”
Still, circuitous routes from obscure Division III colleges to the locker room at Lambeau Field are certainly not the norm, even as more and more undrafted free agents are finding success across the league. It takes a rare individual to stomach such a drastic jump in competition, and outside linebacker C.J. Johnson wants to be next.
Johnson, 24, began his college career in 2013 by redshirting at Tarleton State, a Division II school in Stephenville, Texas. He left the team before the 2014 season but remained on campus for the fall semester. From there Johnson moved home to Alvarado, Texas, where he helped support his mother financially and enrolled in a local community college. He reappeared at East Texas Baptist University in 2015 for three seasons of Division III football, the last of which featured 10½ sacks and a total of 13 tackles for loss.
“I stayed working out like I was part of the football team until I found somewhere else,” Johnson said. “I ended up at ETBU with a friend of mine from high school.”
Though he had found a school and enjoyed a productive career — twice Johnson was named first-team All-American Southwest Conference — there was still the matter of getting noticed by NFL personnel. As was the case with Callahan at Wesley College, scouts aren’t exactly flocking to ETBU’s campus in Marshall, Texas, which is closer to Shreveport, Louisiana, than any major city in the Lone Star State. Johnson also lost a year of potential exposure when he skipped his final season of eligibility to lessen the burden on his mother, who paid for his education because ETBU doesn’t offer athletic scholarships.
“I didn’t want to put that kind of pressure on my mom,” Johnson said.
His opportunity to impress came March 30 during pro day at North Texas, which required a two-hour drive to Dallas and several phone calls from his agents to gain admittance. Johnson described the process as slipping through the cracks.
“I found a way in,” he said.
The results were impressive. At 6-foot-2 and 230 pounds, Johnson is an undersized pass rusher with the build of an inside linebacker. But his 38-inch vertical leap would have tied for second among edge rushers at this year’s scouting combine; his broad jump of 9 feet, 11 inches would have tied for ninth; his 3-cone time of 7.07 seconds would have ranked fourth; his 22 reps on the bench press would have tied for 11th; and his 40-yard dash time of 4.78 seconds would have tied for 12th.
In other words, Johnson would be worth a flier as an undrafted free agent based on athleticism alone. His background in high school consisted of basketball, competitive powerlifting and track and field — all in addition to football.
“Countless hours of extra work during the offseason, the summer, going to training at MJP (Michael Johnson Performance), learning from pros,” Johnson said. “Those guys up there, (they’re) trainers that train pros all the time.
“I was just waiting for my opportunity at the next level, making sure I was in the right shape, conditioning, lifting and it paid off.”
Among those in attendance at North Texas was Charles Walls, a college scout for the Packers. They spoke briefly after the workout, Johnson said, and one month later the Packers called to offer him a contract as an undrafted free agent. The deal included a signing bonus of $5,000, according to BobMcGinnFootball.com.
“I’m speechless,” Johnson said after the second day of rookie orientation practice. “I’m just blessed. I can’t even put it into words. I’ve been waiting on this opportunity and I got it, and now I’m just trying to make the best out of it every day and go hard as I can go, focus on the details, learn from the older players when they get here, ask questions and stay locked in.
“D-III, D-II, D-I is just a label, you know what I mean? The only thing that really speaks for itself is how you perform.”
Two years ago it was Callahan who defied the odds and made the team.
Johnson’s goal is to do the exact same thing.