Looking for “a fresh start,” sophomore receiver Jordan Johnson announced an intention to transfer from Notre Dame on Monday morning. The highest-rated receiver recruit of Irish head coach Brian Kelly’s 12 years in South Bend, Johnson appeared in two games at Notre Dame and recorded no other statistics, including in Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. He was targeted on one pass in the spring scrimmage.
Not that fan demand and message board conversations should drive Irish roster decisions, but they often drive questions asked at press conferences. In early April, Kelly acknowledged that head-on when discussing Johnson, though also hinting at what may have kept Johnson sidelined through much of 2020.
“I know you guys love Jordan Johnson, and he’s doing a nice job,” Kelly said. “I think what I’m most impressed with Jordan is what he’s doing in the classroom right now. He’s really turned the corner there. And you can start to see that confidence showing itself on the football field too.”
That confidence will show itself on someone else’s football field now. Johnson has four years of eligibility remaining, and with the recent implementation of a one-time transfer waiver, the St. Louis-native will be immediately eligible at his next stop. (The one-time transfer waiver: All players may transfer once in their careers without sitting out a season afterward. Simple as that.)
Fellow St. Louis-native and junior running back Kyren Williams consistently offered promising words for Johnson’s future, including just a week ago.
“I look at him as a little brother, so I’m always over there trying to help him get to where he wants to be,” Williams said. “I think he’s had a great spring. He has to keep working on the little details of everything, but that just comes with being a wide receiver and being a football player. You’re never going to be perfect, so he knows that he has to keep working and come fall camp, it’s time for him to really excel and get to where he wants to be as a player.”
In order to crack the receiver rotation in fall camp, Johnson would have needed to surpass one of a senior trio in Braden Lenzy, Kevin Austin and Joe Wilkins. While Johnson’s idling for a year should scream volumes about expecting immediate playing time from praised recruits, even a five-star All-American rated as the No. 3 receiver in the class, the arrival of three more highly-touted freshmen only further clouded the receiver depth chart.
When it comes to those three — Lorenzo Styles, Deion Colzie and Jayden Thomas — an indicator of their paths will be that Kelly has never shied away from using the same concerning words. When he addressed Johnson’s lack of playing time in October, Kelly’s phrasing echoed that once used to discuss Austin, once used to discuss Chase Claypool, and so forth. Sometimes it pans out into a second-round NFL draft pick, sometimes it ends up with a transfer after one year.
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“He had been making some progress in how he is dealing with the transition to college,” Kelly said. “This has never been an issue of lack of ability. We knew of Jordan’s ability. There are other things that are important here at the University and we all know that. He’s been focused heavily on making the transition, the things that are really difficult are in the classroom. He’s made some progress, enough that we brought him up. He’s a talented player. In the rotation? We’ll kind of have to see how that goes, but I think that we all see that he’s got the skill set. Now we’ll have to kind of build that as we go forward.”
With Johnson’s transfer, Notre Dame expects to have 87 scholarship players on its roster next season, now meeting the NCAA maximum of 85 adjusted for two pandemic exceptions (fifth-year kicker Jonathan Doerer and fifth-year nose tackle Kurt Hinish).
— Jordan Johnson (@jjohnsonj1) May 3, 2021