Before last season, I set goals — and I told everybody what I was attempting to do. I told my coach and I told the media: ‘Look, I’m going to lead the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference in sacks,’ and I did that. I said I was going to be first-team all-conference, and I did that. I told them I’d be Defensive Player of the Year, and I did that.
None of those things happened by accident, and none of those individual accolades could have happened without my teammates and coaches. But I worked hard and I backed it up — and I felt like I spoke it into existence, and that’s the only way I know.
My decision to forgo my last year of eligibility to enter the NFL draft is no different. As a college athlete, I wanted to be the best player, and I told that to coach [Rod] Broadway when he sat in my living room to recruit me. North Carolina A&T had seen something in me, and in that meeting, I told Coach Broadway, ‘Look, coach, I’m going to work. My work ethic is phenomenal,’ and after about two years, I got the scholarship. I didn’t have a full ride coming in, and that put a chip on my shoulder. I had to show them … I had to show coach I could play.
‘OK, Darryl Johnson — we see you’
Even though I redshirted my freshman year, I still put in the work. I was a scout team player — and I did my part to help the starters to be successful. I worked my butt off against guys like Brandon Parker, who’s now doing work with the [Oakland] Raiders. Coming in, and going up against him as a young cat, that took everything I had — but I got better each and every day, and it’s because of teammates like Brandon.
When did I know I belonged in the conversation for best defensive player in the country? It might have been that game at Savannah State on Nov. 10, when I recorded eight tackles, 31/2 tackles for loss and a sack. That game, which we won 28-12, was awesome. It was good to go back to my hometown and play with those guys that I grew up and played football with. I got to put on for my city. All my family was there. It was a great feeling to go out there and play well for them, and for my team. I believe that was one of my breakout games.
But even before that, I feel I made a statement for myself. When we played Jacksonville State in Week 1 on Aug. 25, when I made that strip sack that was recovered and we ran out the clock to secure a 20-17 win over a team that came into the game ranked sixth in the nation. That sack, and that game in particular, really let everybody know that, ‘OK, Darryl Johnson — we see you.’ I think everybody tuned in after they saw that game.
That need to prove myself is happening all over again. I know the [NFL] scouts will label me as small and below average in size for a defensive end (at 6-5, 232 pounds). They told that to Tarik Cohen too. Look at him — he’s undersized, playing running back. Look at him, Pro Bowler. They told that to Darius Leonard too — coming from a small school in South Carolina State. Look at him: Defensive Rookie of the Year. All of us guys from HBCUs [historically black colleges and universities] have chips on our shoulders, and that’s why we’re here, to prove people wrong. When guys like Tarik and Darius win, we all win — and it’s nice to see the NFL Players Association recognize that by selecting them as the 2019 recipients of the Black College Football Pro Players of the Year.
Where will I land in the draft?
Where will I land in the draft? Who knows? I got a couple of projections from different scouts saying third or fourth round, and others say it’s possible I could go earlier. I don’t really believe those scouting reports, man. If you can play the game of football, you can play. I don’t care how big the person across from you is, or how small you are. If you can play some football, man, that’s what God put you on this earth to do, that’s what you’re going to do. I’m a football player. All that scouting and projections talk? That’s what’s overrated.
If I have a good pro day in the combine, which goes from Feb. 26 to March 4, there’s a possibility that I could go earlier. If I work my butt off — and I know I will — I’m hoping to go earlier than that. But I’m not worried about that, because this move isn’t just for me. What I’m doing is big for HBCUs. Having the chance to go out and make history and be a part of history is amazing. To go out and actually show the whole world what HBCUs are capable of is a great feeling. I’m doing this for me — and for my school. And for me to pursue my dream after winning back-to-back Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl championships, that’s just an amazing feeling.
Sure, it was a tough process from the jump — but in the end, I can look myself in the mirror and say I’ve achieved everything I wanted. I was a part of three national championships — not too many people can say that.
And, after all that — I’ve been invited to participate in the combine? It’s like, ‘Wow!’ Who would’ve ever thought that it would be me, the first person in my family to be doing something like this? It’s a dream, man, and I’m just happy to be representing my family and North Carolina A&T.
In the end, I felt like, you know, I did my job. I don’t want to take all the credit. We had a lot of impact players on A&T. I did everything I had to do, and that’s what made everything possible as far as being an impact player on the team.
If I could look in my crystal ball a year from now, and I’ll speak it into existence, the headline will be: The guy, Darryl Johnson from A&T, is Rookie of the Year. I want my name to be right there as a guy who left A&T early, went to the NFL, and being Rookie of the Year conversation. You got to talk it to existence and set your goals high. You might not see it right now, but if you set those goals and go by those goals, anything is possible.
That’s every kid’s dream, man. Every man’s dream. And, it’s mine.