Most campus visits by Georgia’s coaching staff during a recruiting cycle garner attention like that of a red carpet.
Maybe it’s the amazement of Kirby Smart’s helicopter touching down on a high school’s mega-investment of turf practice fields. Or the fascination of arriving at a high-school powerhouse — like Marietta, Grayson, Buford, IMG Academy or any school in Texas — to enter the sweepstakes for the latest five-star talent.
That’s how all of the elite college football powers build their programs into what they’ve become. Smart, along with Clemson’s Dabo Swinney, Alabama’s Nick Saban, Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley and a laundry list of others, hunt young talent from the moment they step into a varsity football locker room at 15 years old.
There’s a different way, too.
Each time Jermaine Johnson forced his way into the backfield during the Bulldogs’ 63-17 win over Murray State on Saturday, he sent a reminder. Johnson hails from the junior college ranks, and not just any JUCO program — Independence Community College, what many know as “Last Chance U.”
“He helps the team greatly, and it’s great to have Jermaine here,” defensive back Mark Webb Jr. said. “He makes a lot of plays for us. He’s amped and always ready.”
Once he raised his arms in free pursuit of Murray State quarterback Preston Rice, Johnson gave recognition to his journey. Talent can be found in the middle-of-nowhere Kansas where a school’s population of 1,164 serves as the pride and joy of a one red-light town.
Once Johnson pushed through to nail down Racer running back Rodney Castille, a smile must’ve had to flash across defensive coordinator Dan Lanning’s face. Similar talent can be found while scouting practice on a run-down dirt field with the screaming demands of a coach who has a lone goal of getting his players on a major college roster.
Sometimes, playing at a different collegiate level has meaning.
“Football is football, right?” Lanning said to open preseason practices in August. “Football is football in Kansas. Football is football in Georgia. I think it’s always hard to compare and contrast (JUCO and the SEC) but the field still 100 yards, I mean that stuff doesn’t change.”
Johnson recorded four tackles — third-highest team total after receiving his first start at Georgia — along with one tackle-for-loss and a half-sack. He entered the program as the nation’s No. 1 JUCO recruit, but had to take the route after being a three-star prospect out of Eden Prairie (Minn.) High School with a 1.9 GPA.
Georgia has landed seven JUCO prospects (Defensive linemen Devonte Wyatt and Tramel Walthour returned from the JUCO ranks after signing with the program and falling short of academic standards) since Smart took over as head coach in 2016. Most of them have brought immediate influence to the program, and the trio of Johnson, cornerback DJ Daniel and quarterback Stetson Bennett prove the Bulldogs’ philosophy and focus on adding JUCO players who have a hint of college experience — although at a lesser level.
“I don’t think anybody in the country will tell you they’re going to take a junior college player to not play him,” Smart said. “That’s no intent in that. You’re able to see what you’re getting better because he goes against better quality competition. He has to look like your current players and be able to perform at a high level (in order to play). We thought both those guys were good football players and they’ve done a good job at camp competing for us.”
In certain cases, Georgia has the luxury of redshirting a JUCO player and still have two years of eligibility to play an active role.
Georgia’s JUCO additions since Smart’s first recruiting class include:
- Wide receiver Javon Wims (2016 class): A role player in his first season, then 720 yards and seven touchdowns in 2017 before exhausting eligibility and becoming a seventh-round draftee of Chicago.
- Offensive guard D’Marcus Hayes (2017): Redshirted in 2017, and served as depth. Saw playing time against Vanderbilt and Murray State in 2019.
- Wyatt (2018): Saw frequent playing time quickly by playing in 12 of 14 games. He recorded seven tackles in the Sugar Bowl loss to Texas.
- Bennett (2019): Returned to Georgia after transferring as a freshman in search of playing time. He made his Bulldog debut against the Racers with 124 yards and two touchdowns. Bennett is the primary backup to Jake Fromm.
- Walthour (2019): Signed in 2018; attended Hutchinson CC after academic issues. Currently injured.
- Daniel (2019): Ran with first-team at the end of preseason camp, and recorded a tackle against Vanderbilt.
- Johnson (2019): A frequent rotator alongside Azeez Ojulari, Nolan Smith and other outside linebackers.
In some ways, the transition is similar to that of a younger player. Wide receiver Matt Landers, who came from St. Petersburg (Fla.) High School, noticed there’s a drastic jump regardless of which level a player comes from. A JUCO doesn’t play SEC football, nor does it have over 30,000 students racing around its campus.
But as can be seen in Johnson’s case, there’s somewhat of an advantage. Those two dreaded years of working for a scholarship at the JUCO level aren’t for nothing. Johnson attended the Bulldogs’ bowl practices, became accustomed to the college surroundings faster due to previous experience and knows the difficulty of consistently facing Division I-level talent.
“They’re just as hungry as a high school player,” said tight end Eli Wolf, who came to Georgia from across the SEC at Tennessee. “They come to this bigger stage and wants to play well. (JUCO players) have this experience and maturity, rather than coming in wowed by the classes and people.”
Most JUCO recruitments become memorable moments for coaches, too. Lanning and Johnson remember the moment where they bonded and eventually began the player-coach relationship in Athens. Lanning spotted Johnson during his tenure as linebackers coach at Memphis, and wasn’t able to recruit him at the time due to regulations. Once Lanning took the Georgia job, however, the pass rusher from Independence, Kansas, became his prized possession.
They built an unwavering trust, and it paid off for Georgia. Smart indicates Johnson still has some development, but his potential makes Lanning “very, very excited.” Through two games, other JUCO products have told a similar tale with their performances. All of it serves as proof that a different approach can be successful.
“At the end of the day, regardless of who you’re recruiting,” Lanning said, “recruiting is about relationships.”