Former Cal Poly wide receiver Dominique Johnson looks up to guys like NFL star Marques Colston. He has done what he wants to. Despite playing football at a school not surrounded by national spotlight — Hofstra University — Colston is now a starting wide receiver in the NFL.
Even beyond the Saints’ wide out, the list goes on. Guys like Vincent Jackson and Terrell Owens are just some names of those who rid themselves of “small school” labels and went on to be known not for their alma maters, but for the plays they make on Sundays.
Come the next NFL season, Johnson hopes to be the latest name to make the list.
“I know that coming from a small school it can hurt you, but it’s not the end of the road,” Johnson said. “I could be another case of the ‘small school’ guy who get drafted. The harder I work at it, the better position I put myself in for having my name called on draft weekend.”
Still, Johnson is fighting tremendous odds. He is one of the hundreds of players who have sent their highlight reels to scouts in search of making the dream of playing on Sunday a reality.
But people still see his talent and natural ability. There is a certain skill set Johnson posseses that extends past the 90 receptions, 1,375 yards and 10 touchdowns he racked up at Cal Poly. It has driven tennis professional Ben Shorter, who is training Johnson in Arizona, to compare him to a younger Larry Fitzgerald. And it is the reason his former UCLA wide receivers coach Reggie Moore said, had he stayed at UCLA, he would have been groomed to be one of the best receivers in the Pac-10.
“I saw a lot of potential,” Moore said.
Johnson was certainly en route to big things with the Pac-10 school. At UCLA, Johnson started as the Bruins’ third-string receiver, catching 59 receptions for 695 yards and five touchdowns, one in particular that still makes some UCLA faithful kick themselves for the fact that a playmaker got away.
“He was a good-sized athletic player, who was able to make natural plays,” Moore said. “His ability was tremendous. He had some of those intangibles and tools that you just can’t coach.”
At Cal Poly, where he graduated in December with a bachelor’s degree in history, it was the same story. Johnson quickly made good impressions. He snagged catches others couldn’t, used his body to make the tough plays and used his athleticism to stretch a small gain into a big one. It’s skills like these that made Johnson not only stand out to fans, but to teammates. It didn’t take long for former Cal Poly quarterback Tony Smith to realize the weapon he had in the guy with the number nine painted on his chest.
“He made me look great a lot of times,” Smith said. “He is probably the best football player I have ever played with. He has a look in his eyes on game day that is unlike anything I have ever seen before.”
But there is a reason Johnson isn’t projected to be a first-round pick. There is one hurdle keeping the former Mustang from becoming the highest Cal Poly player taken in the NFL draft. It’s the same difficulty that kept former Cal Poly wide receiver Ramses Barden, who nearly broke all receiving records in his career at Cal Poly, from being drafted no higher than the third round.
“Scouts have me projected at running a 4.62,” Johnson said. “If I can run 4.5 on my pro day or in the combine, I know that is only going to benefit me. Hopefully, it shoots me up the charts.”
To those closest to him, there is no doubt in their minds he will achieve his goal. Johnson is fighting his weakest link with his strongest — his motivation.
Since moving to Arizona, Johnson has been hard at work. Scenes of artificial field turf and dumbbells are starting to become his life. Johnson is currently working harder than he ever did at Cal Poly, he said. He goes through five-day a-week workouts with two two-a-days twice a week. Drills range from NFL combine drills, to one-on-ones with defensive backs or weightlifting exercises.
And he is blowing through his workouts, no problem, Shorter said.
“He has an extremely strong work ethic; he is not one of those guys that takes any drills off,” Shorter said. “No matter how tired he is, no matter what the challenges are, he works his way through it. No matter how hard I have challenged him, he has filled the bill.”
Even when he isn’t working on the physical side of it, Johnson is a student of the craft. He asks tough questions and makes sure he is not only training his body, but doing so the right way.
“He is the kind of kid that goes out there every day and does it,” Shorter said. “I don’t have to ask three times a week about his protein intake, he is doing all of that by himself. He is doing everything I am asking him to do.”
That is why there is no doubt in Shorter’s mind that Johnson’s name will be called on draft day. Cue the lights, because when Johnson — and newly hired agent John Perez — enter draft weekend, they will be leaving it with an NFL contract, Shorter said.
“I am praying,” Shorter said. “He deserves it.”
If it does come, Johnson’s childhood dream will have come true. He will have come a long way from the freshman wide receiver at UCLA — or the threat at Cal Poly. And not only will he land himself on the list of “small school” guys who have made their way to the big leagues, he will land himself on another. This one, however, consists of an even smaller pool of names (ones like Jordan Beck and Chris Gocong) — the few Cal Poly alumni who have played in the NFL.
“I have made playing that level my goal 100 percent,” Johnson said. “We’ll see what comes out of it and hopefully the best does. But I am always willing to continue to play, wherever it may be.”