When discussing Kentucky’s defense for the coming season, many will jump to star names like Josh Allen and Mike Edwards, but an unsung hero of the 2017 Wildcats—who could end up being a major impact player next year—is Lonnie Johnson.
Measurements: 6-3, 206 pounds
Hometown: Gary, Indiana
School: Gary West Side, Garden City Community College
Recruit ranking: No. 43 player, No. 2 safety (JUCO 247 Sports rankings)
The rising senior cornerback had an outstanding junior season all-in-all, racking up 41 total tackles (three for loss, one sack), breaking up five passes, and jumping into the No. 1 cornerback spot on the depth chart.
The decision by Mark Stoops to make Johnson the starting corner over Chris Westry came after Johnson totaled three tackles, including one sack, and broke up a pass in the team’s win over the Tennessee Volunteers. Johnson had one of the biggest highlights of the game, bursting off the blind side on a blitz to hammer Tennessee quarterback Jarrett Guarantano.
Lonnie Johnson with the huge sack. pic.twitter.com/6u7CS6WT02— Scott Charlton (@Scott_Charlton) October 29, 2017
This was Johnson’s triumph of the 2017 season. Unseating his 6-4 teammate as the top cornerback was no small task. Westry had started 21 straight games.
But close followers of the Wildcats will remember that Johnson’s first game as CB1—exactly one week later—was when he suffered his biggest defeat, as the Wildcats fell to the Ole Miss Rebels when D.K. Metcalf launched himself over Johnson to catch a game-winning touchdown pass with five seconds to play.
It was a shot to the chin to get beat in that moment, especially in his first week as the top corner on the team, but Johnson took it in stride.
Imma man and I'll take that one on the chin https://t.co/g7kRYzJslG— 4/7 (@Lonnie30johnson) November 5, 2017
There really wasn’t much else Johnson could have done. He smothered Metcalf, and Metcalf made the catch anyways. And Johnson still impressed in that game despite being caught in that moment. He had five tackles (one for loss) and a pass breakup.
Those two plays were the highs and lows of Johnson’s season, but they weren’t the only big moments he had. Johnson also proved a worthy member of the special teams unit, blocking one field goal and one extra point.
High snap leads to the blocked field goal attempt by Lonnie Johnson. pic.twitter.com/k1uF97f06G— Scott Charlton (@Scott_Charlton) October 8, 2017
Although he’s a rising senior, Johnson’s rise to the top of the depth chart was meteoric, all things considered. The 6-3 corner was playing in his first season with Kentucky after coming from Garden City Community College in Kansas.
Johnson has had a long road to get to this point, but he’s still a proven winner. He was rated the No. 2 safety in the JUCO ranks by 247 Sports and he was an All-Conference selection in 2015 after totaling 35 tackles, five interceptions and one fumble recovery.
For that reason, I don’t think we’ve seen the best of Johnson at Kentucky. He’s still reaching the peak of his college career. He’s got explosive speed, he’s great in pursuit of the ballcarrier and he’s got the ability to be a shutdown corner rather than a ballhawk, as evidenced by some incredible pass breakups in 2017.
At the top of the defensive back depth chart, he’ll be surrounded by talent that may overshadow him sometimes. But he’ll go head-to-head with some of the best receivers in the SEC, and he’ll get an opportunity to impress with his ability to defend those guys.