MIAMI, Fla. — Deandre Johnson grew up a Florida State fan, but a scholarship to play at Florida, a 5-hour drive from his home, sounded appealing last spring.
“So I went up there to Gainesville in April, and they were in communication with my coaches,” said Johnson, a 6-foot-3, 240-pound defensive end from Class 8A state champion Miami Southridge.
“I thought they were going to offer, I went up there, they kept telling me to expect a phone call,” Johnson said. “I never got a phone call. But I’m very happy now that I’ve become a Vol.”
Johnson’s introduction to Tennessee is another story that didn’t begin until last summer, when he and a group of teammates loaded into a van for a barnstorming football camp tour.
The stops were Mississippi State, Alabama and Tennessee, and Johnson did his best to impress.
Interestingly, Johnson said he received a scholarship offer from the Vols while he was in the Alabama players’ lounge while at the Tide’s camp.
It was Tennessee assistant Larry Scott calling. Scott finished the 2015 season as Miami’s interim head coach, and he ranks as one of the most knowledgable and respected coaches who recruits in the Sunshine State.
At the point of Scott’s offer, Johnson had never see the University of Tennessee campus, and he now laughs about what he first expected Knoxville to be like.
“I thought it would be more country,” Johnson said. “But my first day in Knoxville, I stepped out of the van, and it was a clear, sun-shiny day, and with the rush I got, I just knew that was the place for me.
“The whole city, it’s beautiful, with the mountains, the water, the trees and all the colors. I just fell in love with it right away.”
Tennessee, however, was not ready to take Johnson’s commitment, initially.
Business is business
The Vols, like many other schools that recruit aggressively, have a fluid situation when it comes to the numbers game involved with public commitments.
As Johnson said, “they were kinda slow-playing me, and I wasn’t sure how much they really wanted me, so I committed to Mississippi State (July 31) to be safe.”
Florida State, the school he grew up cheering for, had come by his high school a couple of times, but Johnson didn’t feel the Seminoles had genuine interest.
Football remained Johnson’s dream, but as the recruiting process wore on, he realized it was very much a business.
Johnson’s father, himself once a collegiate athlete, understood the process and encouraged his son to be patient.
“When he came back home from camp he told me he liked Tennessee, but when he tried to commit, they said ‘not right now,’” Andre Johnson said. “But Tennessee was in his heart.”
Deandre Johnson focused on his high school season as a Mississippi State commit, but in October, the Miami Southridge star said he started getting weekly visits from Vols defensive line coach Steve Stripling.
Andre Johnson encouraged his son to keep an open mind.
Second time around
The Johnson family took an official visit to Tennessee on Nov. 11, the weekend the Vols beat Kentucky, 49-36.
“I told Deandre to follow his heart and to go through the process, and I told him I’d back him 100 percent,” Andre Johnson said. “I just loved the atmosphere and family values I felt were up there.
“I want him to make sure he’s prepared for life if he doesn’t make it into the NFL. Tennessee made me feel it was all about life, and that he would be all set for 40 years after football with the education and relationships he’d build there.”
Deandre Johnson felt he owed Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen and the Bulldogs an official visit, however, so he traveled to Starkville on Dec. 2 to give them another opportunity to convince him that he should wear maroon.
“I did give Mississippi State another look, the process is just so hard,” Deandre Johnson said. “It not only affects recruiting, it affects life. I’m in school when all this is going on, and like, I can’t even think straight.”
A late-night home visit from Tennessee coach Butch Jones and several assistants on Dec. 6 helped Johnson decide.
“Right after Coach Jones came to visit me, my mind was telling me Tennessee was the place,” Johnson said. “First of all, just the fact they came at midnight, it showed how committed they were to me.
“When they stepped in the house, the place got lit. Coach Jones had on a suit. I knew I was in good hands.”
Then it came time to talk football, and Johnson loved what he was hearing from Vols defensive coordinator Bob Shoop.
“First thing, when we talked to Coach Shoop, he has a great personality and he knows the game,” Johnson said. “You can tell by the way he talks, and the way he discussed the positions and how he would line guys up. The strategy he has, it’s just crazy.
“He knows where his players have to be to make plays. Talking to him, his knowledge of the game was obvious.”
Johnson told himself to make sure he thought things through before trying to commit to the Vols again.
“I slept on it for a week, and every morning I woke up, Tennessee was on my mind,” Johnson said. “That phone call I had to make with Coach Mullen was very hard.
“It had to do with what was right for me at the end of the day. He said he understood but was disappointed.”
One day after calling Mullen, Deandre Johnson made his commitment to Tennessee public on Dec. 12.
Johnson said he’ll arrive in Knoxville on Jan. 8 and be ready for the start of classes on Jan. 11 and whatever challenges await him in the training room.
“My approach is to come in and get all the reps I can get,” Johnson said. “I’m coming in hungry and looking to work hard. If there’s a spot, I’m going to try to take it.
“I don’t want to get ahead of myself, but if the opportunity is there, I’ll take full advantage.”