There was one play in David Johnson’s 10th grade season when Lithonia (Ga.) High coach Marcus Jelks knew Johnson was going to be a special player.
Johnson, a defensive end at the Atlanta-area high school, rushed the quarterback and got a hand in his face. Still, a short pass was completed, and the wide receiver took off downfield.
Johnson didn’t quit on the play.
The receiver was 60 yards down field when Johnson caught him, made the tackle and prevented a touchdown.
“It’s one of those things you can’t really coach,” Jelks said. “A motor like that, it just comes natural to him.”
Johnson, rated a four-star prospect by ESPN and a high three-star by other services, committed to South Carolina on May 10.
He flashes a smile when asked about the motor that his coach and recruiting analysts rave about. He said several times that he’s “relentless.”
“I keep playing until the whistle blows,” he said. “That’s what my coaches have always taught me.”
Scout.com national recruiting analyst Chad Simmons said the 6-foot-2, 240-pound Johnson reminds him of Gamecock great Eric Norwood.
“I’ve been comparing David to him for a while now,” Simmons said. “He’s a kid that’s kind of versatile, some may consider a tweener. Is he a defensive end? Is he a linebacker? He reminds me of Eric from the body size and the way you can move him around to different positions to create mismatches. He does well in those types of situations.”
Johnson runs a 4.7 in the 40-yard dash, according to 247Sports. He said USC coaches see him as a Melvin Ingram-type player who could work at linebacker and defensive end.
“They let him drop back into coverage sometimes and pass rush, too,” Johnson said. “I like to pass rush.”
As a senior, Johnson tallied 109 tackles, nine sacks, 19 tackles for loss, one interception, three forced fumbles and one fumble recovery. He also played offensive guard and fullback in the team’s power formation.
He recently took part in the annual Offense-Defense All-American Bowl in Dallas.
“He was a huge presence on the field as he was all over the place,” Jelks said. “He will be expected to play as a true freshman at South Carolina, and I know he will be a huge asset to the team.”
Johnson’s Lithonia High produced USC linebacker Cedrick Cooper and 2012 offensive lineman signee Joe Harris. South Carolina defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward was the recruiter for all three players.
Johnson said he’s a big fan of Marcus Lattimore and Jadeveon Clowney, as well as former players Alshon Jeffery and Stephon Gilmore. One of his all-time favorites is defensive end John Abraham, a defensive end who starred for the Gamecocks in the late 1990s and now plays down the road from Johnson for the Atlanta Falcons.
He said he liked how USC’s practice is set up as well as the campus layout.
“It’s a very friendly environment,” he said. “It felt like home, how their defensive scheme is set up.”
Johnson had offers from Auburn, Vanderbilt, Tennessee, Mississippi State, N.C. State and Pittsburgh.
Jelks considered him a sleeper in recruiting circles.
“He’s a tremendous player. He flew under the radar just because of how big of a prospect Joe was,” Jelks said. “He’s a tremendous playmaker. He makes things happen with a motor like I’ve never seen before. He’s going to be one of the great ones, I think, at USC.”