Analysis: No Single Answer, Figure To Blame In Former Five-Star Recruit Jordan Johnson's Notre Dame Football Exit
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Analysis: No Single Answer, Figure To Blame In Jordan Johnson’s Exit

Jordan Johnson was many things in his one year at Notre Dame.

A gifted five-star recruit. The future at an important position. A freshman whose acclimation to new settings featured some bumps. A shiny toy that never came out of the box. A centerpiece of fan and media fixation.

And now, a marriage between player and program that just didn’t work out. It ends with Johnson’s likely departure. Notre Dame’s highest-rated 2020 signee announced Monday his intent to transfer elsewhere. He played two catch-less games in 2020 and working mainly as a second-teamer this spring.

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Former Notre Dame Fighting Irish football wide receiver Jordan Johnson
Johnson was Notre Dame's highest-rated 2020 signee and a five-star recruit. (Nick Lucero/Rivals.com)

All of the good was enough for Johnson to become a lightning-rod topic as his DNPs piled up while Notre Dame’s 2020 receiving corps operated as a solid-but-unspectacular piece of an efficient yet not overly explosive offense.

It was also not nearly enough to outweigh the reasons for those 2020 DNPs and early 2021 trajectory as a backup. Those won’t be publicly known in full. What became clear enough over time, though, was that he required more development than his five-star ranking indicated and the discussion around his freshman year consumed more oxygen than it deserved.

With his exit, that development won’t happen at Notre Dame. Why his Notre Dame résumé reads 26 snaps, zero catches and a spring game with one target is a question for the Irish’s staff. It also seems like a question without an obvious, singular answer or cause.

Depending on which tweet replies or message board thread you saw since last fall, Johnson’s transfer is a referendum on Notre Dame’s receiver situation and the opportunity it gives freshmen. Other parts of the interwebs insist Johnson is simply a reminder that on an individual scale, a star ranking is hardly a set-in-stone forecast for a player’s freshman year or his career.

Start with the first. Aren’t coaches supposed to help young players understand and execute their on-field responsibilities? Isn’t it their job to make players’ jobs easier? Sure, Johnson’s career should be a prompt for introspection for Notre Dame’s coaches.

But for whatever they could’ve done to help Johnson do more last fall, it wasn’t going to address his college-life acclimation struggles at Notre Dame. And sometimes, that has to be the priority. Especially for a freshman. Especially for a place that sells its educational benefits like Notre Dame.

“There are other things that are important here at the university, and we all know that,” head coach Brian Kelly said in October. “He has been focused heavily on making the transition. The things that are really difficult are in the classroom.

“We all see he has the skill set. Now we’ll have to build on that.”

And if it took a year to get that down, it’s hardly a calamity when looking at college football overall. An impact freshman year from a top receiver recruit is the exception, not the norm.

Johnson was Rivals’ No. 5 wide receiver and No. 28 overall player in the 2020 class. From 2017-2020, there were 30 receivers who were ranked in the top-50 in their respective years. Six of them caught more than 25 passes as freshmen. Thirteen caught single digit passes their first year. There were more players who had fewer than five receptions as freshmen than players who had at least 40. Johnson is one of three in that group who didn’t record a catch as a freshman.

It’s not that Notre Dame won’t play freshmen either. Look no further than fellow 2020 top-100 recruits Michael Mayer and Chris Tyree. Cornerback Clarence Lewis, one of the class’ lowest-rated players, also became a starter last year. This spring, five-star freshman offensive tackle Blake Fisher has earned himself a long look as potential starter.

At receiver, Kevin Stepherson in 2016 is the only Notre Dame freshman to catch more than 20 passes since 2010. Others have played and not redshirted, though, such as Will Fuller (six catches, three starts in 2013), Chase Claypool (five catches, 2016) and Kevin Austin Jr. (five catches, 2018).

Given all that, panic with Johnson after his anonymous 2020 was a bit extreme. But some concern rested in his apparent struggles this spring. Many of his top-50 receiver peers had bigger sophomore years after quiet freshman seasons. Johnson’s 2021, albeit early with time for growth, had more signs of another season largely spent in the shadows than one with steps forward.

He hadn’t taken many first-team reps at a position with openings. Kelly imploring the still-unproven senior receivers to elevate their game wasn’t a great sign for Johnson’s 2021 involvement. Neither was his spring game, where his most visible moment was a second-quarter screen called for him. Quarterback Drew Pyne never threw the ball because Johnson blocked a cornerback instead of running the route. It resulted in a sack.

Johnson also missed a few practices toward the end of spring due to some minor injuries.

“That’s going to slow his development down,” offensive coordinator Tommy Rees said in April.

Added Kelly earlier this spring: “Jordan Johnson is getting better, there’s no doubt. He has to continue to get better with the little things.”

That was never as easy as it sounds for Johnson at Notre Dame. Perhaps his hop into the portal is the change that helps him — and identifies what could (or couldn’t) have happened to make it occur in South Bend.

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