Jan 2, 2021; Glendale, AZ, USA; Iowa State Cyclones defensive back Anthony Johnson Jr. (26) celebrates against the Oregon Ducks in the Fiesta Bowl at State Farm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
He may toil under the so-called radar.
He hasn’t been broadly hailed as one of the Big 12’s truly elite cornerbacks — garnering honorable mention all-conference honors the past two seasons.
But Anthony Johnson’s transformation at Iowa State nonetheless borders on the astonishing.
The St. Petersburg, Fla., native strode onto campus weighing in at a lithe 160 pounds. He’s up to at least 200 entering his senior season. And the growth he’s made both on the ball and in space ranks among the greatest the Cyclones’ cornerbacks coach, Matt Caponi, has seen in his career.
“Heck, I’ve been coaching for 16 years now,” Caponi said. “Just the way that he’s matured and understanding how to become a great leader is something he’s developed over the course of the last almost two years now. It’s great to have a veteran guy there that doesn’t need me to tell him to get the guys together and watch film. … He’s been outstanding and I think he’s going to continue to develop into a great leader and that’s obviously going to help him down the road.”
Johnson’s gained more than just 40 or so pounds since he first strode onto campus. He’s found out who he is — both what drives him and how to get to the preferred destination. He’s now considered an “old man” in head coach Matt Campbell‘s burgeoning program, which prompts him to chuckle.
“Four years strong, man,” Johnson said with a smile. “Four years strong.”
Johnson’s commitment to personal excellence dovetails with ISU’s four-year journey from college football also-ran to top-10 program.
He’s developed himself into a pro-caliber corner. If he ends up being drafted into the NFL next spring, he’d be the Cyclones’ first defensive back selected since the great Ellis Hobbs was picked in the third round in 2005. But Johnson’s not focused on that, of course. There’s so much left to achieve at ISU — both personally and collectively, but what precisely that means won’t be defined by the outside world. Not to him, anyway.
“We’re trying to play to the best of our abilities,” said Johnson, who enters this season on the team’s third-longest games started streak (29), which falls just behind linebacker Mike Rose (38) and quarterback Brock Purdy (33). “We know what we’re capable of, so at the end of this season, we’ll know if we played to our expectations, which are inside our walls. We’re not out to prove nothing to anybody. We’re in here to prove stuff to the people inside of our walls.”
Here’s what Johnson has proven: Target him at your peril. One reason he’s “under the radar” somewhat is most opponents know he’ll relentlessly lock down his side of the field. No matter the receiver he’s locked up with. No matter the situation.
“I’ve got a lot of pride,” Johnson said. “I’m very confident in my ability. I go to work every day and teams see that. It don’t matter whether I’m in the (spotlight) or not in the (spotlight), how they talk about it or not, it doesn’t matter, because I go to work. And the person who lines up across from me knows that. And they know that when they’re coming against me, they’d better be ready.”
And vice versa. Johnson’s experience has allowed him to strike the perfect balance between swagger and humility. The former flows freely for most young corners. The latter is learned.
“The first year I got here, he was still fairly young, the group was young,” Caponi said. “They didn’t know how much they had to buy into the game to be great. They thought they could just show up every day and be great. Well, it’s a lot more than that. Anthony’s really put in the work, which has allowed him to mature. (That’s) allowed him to become a great leader and play with more poise. I think he even said in one of his interviews, the game has slowed down for him, and anytime you have the experience and the game slows down for you, that’s your opportunity to go from good to great. He’s excelled at that.”
Johnson joked on media day that when he was being recruited to ISU in 2017 — and the Cyclones were coming off a fourth straight season of three or fewer wins — he vowed never to join such a program. He changed his mind, obviously, and that decision changed his life.
“It wasn’t only the football aspect, it was the development into a man, which I think is the greatest thing so far in my career,” Johnson said. “Going from, really, a boy to a man. Learning how to be a man was the biggest thing for me.”
That’s not to say Johnson doesn’t enjoy lighter moments amid the stern competition. He’s often at the center of both.
“He’s very goofy,” senior defensive lineman Enyi Uwazurike said. “I have a big sense of humor. I probably don’t look like it, but I have a big sense of humor. I like to smile. I like to laugh. LIterally, I see that in him. The development that he’s made over the last few years — in football and outside of football — is crazy. He gave his senior talk the other night and (it was the) best senior talk I’ve heard in my life. I mean, it touched me. I got emotional in there. Anthony Johnson is a really good guy. Has a really good heart. Been through crazy stuff in his lifetime. He’s blessed to be here. I’ve never been more proud of a certain player than him.”
That’s a popular refrain among the Cyclones’ players and coaches.
“I think you appreciate, just like you said, the longevity and the journey he’s been on,” Iowa State defensive coordinator Jon Heacock said. “To watch him grow up physically — and (he) had a great high school coach that trained him that was rally important in his life and got him ready to go at this level. He just has progressed. And he’s just such a great human. It’s great to see. It’s a great story. He’s played well and is playing well, and is doing a great job of leading us right now.”
Iowa State linebackers coach Tyson Veidt was a key recruiter for Johnson and remembers how it started … and fully appreciates how it’s going.
“He can still do backflips with a (weight) gain of (roughly) 50 pounds, but he was — as most guys are — tested early in the pass game,” Veidt said. “And then kind of year two, they started to test him in the run game a little bit, (using) formations (on) us in ways that, ‘Hey, maybe we can run at this guy and find a deficiency there.’ (That’s) always something new for corners, right? They’re used to covering people through high school and all the 7s on 7s they do, and that’s about it a lot of times. He has certainly worked to develop in those areas as well for us and be a great run supporter. He’s done that not just through studying the game and working on the fundamentals, but also how he has physically developed has enabled him to be better there, too.”
Better all-around, too. Johnson may just be the most valuable Iowa State player who isn’t talked about much outside of Ames. As for that radar cliché, yeah, he doesn’t mind being a blip on that figurative screen at all. Rest assured, he’s there. We know it. They know it. He laughs about it.
“It fuels my game,” Johnson said. “Knowing they’ve got no respect for my game, I think that makes me play at a higher level. I don’t really buy into it because like I said, the critics or the social media may not know, but the teams and the person that lines up across of me, they know what’s up — and I like being under the radar. Maybe I’ll get more targets that way.”