On this particular day, A.W. Mumford Stadium was an easy find for Phil Savage.
“Because the lights were on,” Savage laughed. “(Everything else) was pitch black.”
The Southern football team begins practice at 5:30 a.m., the reason it was dark when Savage visited campus last fall to evaluate one of the Football Championship Subdivision’s best players. Savage, a former NFL general manager and current executive director of the Senior Bowl, left that practice with all the information he needed.
Danny Johnson was going to the Senior Bowl.
Months later, Johnson was here on a sun-splashed day Thursday, donning his Southern helmet, orange Senior Bowl jersey and white pants and chasing down NFL-caliber wideouts like LSU’s DJ Chark and Missouri’s J’Mon Moore. He’s again showcasing his skills, this time in front of hundreds of NFL executives and pro scouts, and he’ll do it again Saturday in the Senior Bowl, televised on NFL Network from Mobile’s Ladd-Peebles Stadium.
It is the grandest of stages for a small-school cornerback like Johnson, an East Feliciana graduate who must face questions from scouts about his college competition.
“I’m here to showcase my talent and show that I can compete with the best of them,” Johnson said. “Every night before I go to sleep I’m saying, ‘I’m just ready to show the guys I belong here.’ ”
This is not common, a Southern player running around the field with All-Americans and career starters from the likes of the Southeastern, Big Ten and Big 12 conferences. Johnson is just the eighth Southern player to participate in the Senior Bowl and the first in 23 years.
“Shocking. It is shocking,” said Aeneas Williams, the former Southern defensive back, eight-time Pro Bowler and Pro Football Hall of Famer. “I’m glad Phil Savage didn’t overlook him. Danny can play at the next level. Hopefully, his name gets called early enough for all these other players in the I-AA and HBCUs to see that hard work pays off.”
Johnson is only the 10th player from the SWAC in the past decade at the Senior Bowl, and he could become the first Jaguar drafted since cornerback Lenny Williams in 2004. He’s projected by at least one outlet (WalterFootball.com) as a mid-round pick, ranked as the 15th-best cornerback in the draft.
Any projection in January is mostly a jab in the dark. The draft is more than three months away. This is only the start of a lengthy pre-draft process, full of pro days, combines and individual workouts with teams. Prospects are building what Savage calls a “profile tape.” In that profile tape are one-on-ones this week in Mobile — defensive linemen against offensive linemen, running backs against linebackers, receivers against cornerbacks.
These unfold each practice in front of NFL Network cameras and scouts’ eyes.
“Everyone focuses on the practices, and they are important, but the most important element of those practices are the one-on-ones,” Savage said. “I told the players this: The head coaches don’t have time to watch 500 draft prospects, but they do have time to watch a profile tape. That tape will have 70-80 plays from the season, one-on-ones here, combine and pro day.
“In 15 or 20 minutes, you pop that tape in and pull it out, you have a picture of that player. Those one-on-ones are mightily important.”
Profile tapes are even more important for Johnson and the other 15 players here who hail from the FCS or Divisions II or III.
“For the scouts, this is the ultimate of comparison shopping for them,” Savage said. “To put Danny Johnson on the same field as these other big-school corners and big-school receivers will be very revealing.”
On Thursday, Johnson allowed one touchdown in four one-on-one opportunities on the goal line — twice against Central Florida receiver Tre’Quan Smith and once each against Kansas State’s Byron Pringle and Missouri’s Moore. He batted away two of those four targets, showing off what those close to him say is his best asset — his ball skills.
He approaches the cornerback position like a receiver, one draft analyst wrote.
“I look at it just like I’ve got one chance at the ball just like they do,” Johnson said. “A lot of people say defensive backs can’t catch, but I always think I’ve got to attack the ball before he does.”
Johnson built a strong résumé during four years in Baton Rouge: 45 starts in 45 career games; three-time All-SWAC and two-time All-FCS; 18 career interceptions; and a nation-leading 17.3 yards per punt return in 2017.
He completed his career with a senior season full of big plays. He had a fourth-down pass breakup with 10 seconds left to secure a win over South Carolina State. He returned an interception 79 yards against Texas-San Antonio and picked off a pass on the very first defensive play against Alcorn State. He caught a 39-yard touchdown on his first-ever college snap on offense and followed that with rushing and passing touchdowns in games against Jackson State and Arkansas-Pine Bluff.
Southern coach Dawson Odums moved Johnson all over the field, an offensive boost for his team and a résumé-builder for a lightly recruited product he plucked out of the tiny East Feliciana town of Jackson back in 2014. Johnson’s biggest scholarship offer came from UL-Lafayette.
His height hurt his recruitment. He measured in at 5-foot-9 at Tuesday’s weigh-in here. He still hears about it.
“Knock on me is my height,” Johnson said. “I want to show I’m 5-9 but that it doesn’t matter. I play big, make big plays.”
Johnson was a do-it-all player — quarterback, running back, safety, punter, cornerback — at East Feliciana, and he acknowledges he hoped to play offense in college. His quickest playing time came at cornerback, Odums said.
It all worked out.
“He’s not as physical as Aeneas Williams, but he’s got a competitive spirit like Aeneas,” Odums said. “He’s smart and has that craftiness and great ball skills. He’s Danny Johnson. Not too many people have coached a guy like Danny Johnson.”
Off the field, when Johnson isn’t spending time with his 6-year-old son Aiden, he’s watching film of former defensive backs: Deion Sanders, Darrelle Revis and Patrick Peterson.
“I like to watch some of the older guys. They played a lot of bump-and-run back then,” he said. “Just watching those guys … they didn’t have that one thing that you can say they can only do this or that. That’s what I like about them. I try to resemble myself in the same way.”
He watches them, but he looks up to Aeneas Williams.
The two connected during the football season, said Williams, who lives in St. Louis and serves as a senior advisor to NFL executives. From a distance, the Hall of Famer has been watching Johnson blossom, shutting down major-college receivers in Southern non-conference games against opponents like Georgia in 2015 and Southern Miss in 2017.
Johnson’s on-the-field success is great, but his lack of off-the-field problems is just as important. Johnson graduated in criminal justice in December, finishing his degree in three and a half years with a 3.3 cumulative GPA.
Like many here in Mobile, Johnson’s nights have been spent in individual meetings with NFL personnel.
“Best thing is they ask me about trouble, if I’ve been in trouble. Never been in trouble,” he said. “Don’t have any off-the-field issues. That’s a big plus for me.”
As for that height, Odums scoffs.
“I think he’s known for a long time he’s 5-9,” the coach said. “I don’t foresee it changing. You realize what you have. In this game, they can’t measure the fight on the inside; that’s what he has that separates him.”