PROVO — If BYU receives the opening kickoff next Saturday in the season-opener at Ole Miss, the first player to touch the ball this season for the Cougars could be redshirt freshman Jordan Johnson, who will be making his collegiate debut.
The 5-foot-10, 185-pound backup cornerback from Springfield, Mass., is projected to handle kickoff returns, along with junior Mike Hague.
"They chose me to be back there on kick returns," Johnson said Friday. "It's an honor. I'm glad they chose me. I want to help my team in whatever way possible."
Coach Bronco Mendenhall said this week that Johnson was the scout team kick and punt returner last year. Mendenhall has been impressed with Johnson's quickness and elusiveness.
"Both units had a really hard time getting a hold of him," the coach said. "We were kind of biding our time, waiting for him to be out of his redshirt year. No one has seen it yet in a live game, but we've seen enough in practice … and the players believe in him. So we'll see."
Hague told the Deseret News earlier this week that Johnson's running style will remind Cougar fans of James Dye, who, in 1995-96, tied the school record for most punt return touchdowns in a career, set by Golden Richards.
"I'm shifty, and I've got some speed to go with it," Johnson said. "I guess we'll see next Saturday."
In addition to playing cornerback and returning kicks at Brooks School in Massachusetts, Johnson also played quarterback, rushing for 950 yards and 12 touchdowns and passing for 640 yards and six TDs.
Johnson is eager to take the field after redshirting last season. During fall camp, Johnson battled to be the starting field corner, which was earned by senior Corby Eason.
"I'm very excited. Being a redshirt last year, I was kind of impatient," he said. "I've always played since Pop Warner. To have to sit out an entire year and not be able to play, it gets to you. But the season is upon us and we're working hard. I'm counting down the days until we play Ole Miss."
Sitting out last season helped Johnson get acclimated to the Cougar football program, explaining that he learned a lot from last year's starting corners, Brian Logan and Brandon Bradley. During fall camp, Eason and junior cornerback Robbie Buckner have been instrumental in his development.
"Robbie and Corby, I look up to them and they took me under their wings and showed me the ropes," he said. "I can't wait to get out there on the field. I just want to help my team anyway I can. Right now they have me behind Corby and I feel that Corby as our starting corner will help our team tremendously."
Johnson found out about BYU through Danny Ainge, the former Cougar basketball star who is now the president of basketball operations for the Boston Celtics. Johnson's uncle, Leo Papile, is assistant executive of basketball operations for the Celtics.
A couple of years ago, Ainge referred Johnson to BYU. Johnson attended a football camp in Provo and eventually committed to the Cougars.
While Johnson hasn't talked much with Ainge since arriving in Provo last year, he did catch up with Ainge's son, Austin — who also played basketball at BYU — when Austin came to town as the head coach of the Maine Red Claws of the NBA Developmental League. In May, Austin Ainge was named director of player personnel for the Celtics.
Now that BYU is an independent, Johnson would like to see the Cougars schedule Boston College at some point. "That would be fun so my friends and family can come see me play," he said.
For now, Johnson is looking forward to making his collegiate debut.
"I get a little nervous, but that's only natural. It comes with the territory," he said. "I'm ready to go. I can't wait to get the ball in my hands and see what I can do."
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