Justin Johnson’s transition to football shouldn’t come as a surprise

Junior tight end Justin Johnson, left, works out with red shirt freshmen Kyle Fourtenbary on Tuesday March 28 at L.T. Smith Stadium.

Sam Porter

Many people were shocked when they found out the leading scorer for the WKU basketball team, Justin Johnson, decided to participate in spring football with one year of basketball eligibility left.

But others weren’t shocked considering the decision comes just one year after former Hilltopper George Fant made the transition from basketball to football as well. Fant’s decision worked out well for him, as he started 10 games at left tackle for the Seattle Seahawks during his rookie season. 

“To be honest, it had nothing to do with George,” Johnson said. “It’s always been in the back of my mind. You can ask George. My freshman year, I told him ‘Maybe if basketball doesn’t work out, I might try football.’ That was before he even played football. It’s always been in the back of my mind and something I thought I should try.”

However, Fant’s successful transition shouldn’t be why fans aren’t surprised by Johnson’s decision.

This isn’t the first time Johnson has been scouted to play football.

Justin Haddix, a former WKU quarterback, was the head football coach at Johnson’s high school Perry County Central High when Johnson was enrolled there. Despite not playing football since middle school, Johnson said he still participated in 7 on 7, and  Haddix would bring him down when scouts visited.

Neal Brown, a former University of Kentucky offensive coordinator, was one of those scouts and was impressed by the basketball player’s performance during drills.

“Justin [Haddix] would have scouts come in,  and he would bring me down,” Johnson said. “I would work for the scouts. That’s when Neal [Brown] said you have a spot to play at Kentucky. They wanted me to come there even without any high school experience.”

Johnson passed on the offer and accepted a basketball scholarship to WKU where he’s been the Hilltopper’s leading scorer the past two seasons.

First-year WKU head football coach Mike Sanford said he first met Johnson in February at Sigma Chi fraternity’s philanthropy event, “Fight Night”, when Johnson first mentioned his interest in playing football.

“I had watched him play basketball and was a huge fan of how he plays,” Sanford told the Bowling Green Daily News. “He mentioned something about how he has a history of playing football,  and it was something he had interest in doing down the road. Of course I said to him, ‘Hey, this is something for a later day. You’re in the middle of basketball season. If you have the urge to do it, you have to communicate with coach [Rick] Stansbury before we really go forward with anything.”

Johnson began practicing with the Hilltoppers last Tuesday and is adapting to a system that is new to every player on the roster.

Johnson said he and senior quarterback Mike White are good friends.

Chemistry could be important between the two considering the forward could end up being one White’s favorite targets in the future. During last Thursday’s practice, White found his new tight end on a seam route. Johnson caught the pass and found his way into the end zone, dunking the football over the goalpost in a fashion WKU fans saw throughout basketball season.

“That was my first touchdown of spring so they made a big deal out of it,” Johnson said. “Coach Sanford said there’s only two rules: First ever touchdown, dunk it through the goal posts and take the penalty. The second one, get the rest of your arm tatted so you look mean.”

Unlike Fant, Johnson may not have as much trouble finding playing time at the tight end position.

As of now, redshirt senior Deon Yelder and redshirt freshman Kyle Fourtenbary are the only other tight ends listed on WKU’s roster for the spring.

Neither of those two caught a pass last season.

Yelder made his impact primarily on special teams while Fourtenbary redshirted his first season on the Hill.

“Any time you get a third confident body,  it’s going to help that entire group,” tight ends coach Ryan Mahaffey said. “Early on, I think he has a better grasp of the offense than I’ve given him credit for. We’re just making sure he’s being put in a position to go out there and be successful. We’re making sure we’re getting him to where he needs to be so the other 10 guys can go out there and operate. He’s doing a nice job in terms of his knowledge of the offense.”

Johnson and the Hilltoppers will continue to practice through spring ball up until the Red-White Spring game on April 22. Johnson says he still plans on playing basketball next season.

“I’m just taking it one day at a time and we’ll see how it goes,” Johnson said.

“We’ll see where it leads me. I just want to try it. What happens, happens.”

Reporter Sam Porter can be reached at 270-799-8247and [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @SammyP14.