Ask Donovan Johnson what he has appreciated most about football and you won’t hear the Detroit Cass Tech senior mention the Technicians’ 2016 Division 1 championship, playing in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl, his explosive touchdown runs and kick returns, wreaking havoc as one of the state’s top defensive backs or being pursued by more than a dozen Division 1 college programs.
While Johnson has loved every moment of those experiences, being part of a successful gridiron brotherhood is what he treasures most.
“I started playing and developing a love for football when I was about 7 years old and have had great experiences with every team I’ve been on, building relationships and getting to know people,” he said. “It’s the people I have met through football is what I’ve liked the most about it. I mean, nothing beats coming together as a team, charging on to the field and going into battle with your brothers and dedicated coaches who are there for you.”
Johnson, who boasts a blazing 4.35-second, 40-yard dash best, was on the winning side of nearly every battle during his three seasons on Cass Tech’s varsity, helping the Technicians to a 37-4 record and two state finals appearances.
Capping his prep career with a bang, Johnson rushed for 89 yards on a mere six carries and two touchdowns as Cass Tech defeated Detroit Catholic Central, 49-20, for their third state title in six seasons.
When it came to making a college decision, Johnson sought out the same feeling of camaraderie and feels he has found exactly that at Penn State. He verbally committed to the Nittany Lions on Dec. 13 less than a week after his official visit and was set to sign his letter of intent Wednesday.
The 5-10, 180-pounder is 10th on the Detroit Free Press Fab 50 list and the only member of the top 10 who did not sign with Michigan or Michigan State.
“Really, it was the people I met when I visited and how the coaching staff has treated me since they first starting talking to me last spring,” said Johnson, who chose Penn State over Virginia Tech. “I did feel some of the same things about Virginia Tech, but Penn State is closer to home and I could really see myself as a part of the program. I have already built a good relationship with the coaches and feel they really care about my future. Coach (James) Franklin is a terrific person.”
Johnson, ranked the nation’s 18th-best defensive back by Rivals.com, received offers from 10 other Power 5 Conference programs, including Tennessee, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Oregon, Arizona, West Virginia and Missouri. Michigan and Michigan State did not offer.
He was recruited by Nittany Lions co-defensive coordinator Tim Banks, a former Detroit King and Central Michigan standout.
“Donovan made a good choice in going to Penn State,” said Cass Tech coach Thomas Wilcher, who has six players in the Fab 50. “Tim Banks, James Franklin and the coaching staff will really help him succeed. They want to make a difference in the lives of their players on the football field and in life. Donovan has put himself in a great situation.”
Johnson put himself in a great recruiting situation through impressive performances at a pair of off-season camps.
He clocked a then-personal best of 4.43 in the 40-yard dash and was named defensive MVP at the Ohio Regional Camp in May before lowering it to 4.35 seconds at The Opening Talent Showcase at the University of Oregon in July.
It was the third-fastest time among The Opening’s 166 prospects. Johnson also posted the fastest shuttle-run time (3.83 seconds) and recorded a 38.5-inch vertical leap. He finished with the 10th-best overall rating (134.7).
“I have always had good speed, but was shocked after I ran 4.35,” Johnson said. “After that, though, I able to run that time pretty consistently.”
Johnson consistently made life miserable on both sides of the ball for opponents this past season, rushing for nearly 1,100 yards on just 76 carries, almost 15 yards a pop, with 16 touchdowns. He also returned three kickoffs for touchdowns and finished with 12 pass breakups and three interceptions.
Johnson’s finest hour came in a thrilling 43-42 regional-final win over Saline in which his 13 carries produced 285 yards and four touchdowns.
“Donovan is just very athletic and very fast with the good football instincts you just can’t coach,” Wilcher said. “Beyond that, he is just a baller, a guy who makes big-time plays at big-time moments on both sides of the ball. Donovan was very important to our success because he could stretch the defense out side-to-side and down the field offensively. Defensively, he made other teams work for everything they got.”
Johnson has worked tirelessly for everything he has gotten since first donning a football uniform in the second grade.
His breakthrough varsity moment came as a sophomore when Cass Tech squared off against King in a clash of 8-0 teams.
Johnson’s task was containing junior Donnie Corley, one of the nation’s top receivers who is now at Michigan State.
The then-5-9, 160-pound Johnson against the gifted 6-3, 180-pound Corley seemed like a mismatch, but Johnson limited to him to five catches for 49 yards and a touchdown as the Technicians rolled 39-7. Corley totaled 42 receptions for 1,038 yards and 17 touchdowns in King’s other nine games that year.
Another highlight was finishing with 67 total yards, two touchdowns and four tackles in Cass Tech’s loss to Romeo in the 2015 state championship game.
“Cass Tech has a great football legacy and I’m just glad that our group was able to carry that legacy on,” Johnson said. “It didn’t end with us as we fought through any adversity to keep winning. Of course, the dedication of our coaching staff was also a big part of that and they have been great for my development from the start.”
Now, Wilcher and his staff can watch Johnson further develop in Happy Valley.
“With Donovan’s athletic ability, work ethic and the coaching he will receive, there is no reason he can’t make an impact and be an All-Big Ten kind of player,” Wilcher said.
Though he has been recruiting as a defensive back, Johnson hopes to contribute in several ways just as he has at Cass Tech.
“I’m excited to compete in practices and show I bring to the table,” he said. “The goal for the first year is to get on the field in any way I can. I think they might use me on special teams and returning kicks eventually as well. We’ll see what happens.”