Those that are close to Tennessee redshirt senior wide receiver Brandon Johnson wouldn’t have guessed that he would have turned out to be an SEC football player.
Not only was basketball the sport Johnson loved the most growing up, but his dad was a successful Major League Baseball player. His father, Charles Johnson, played 12 years in the big leagues as a catcher after starring at the University of Miami. The elder Johnson spent seven seasons with the Florida Marlins and was a member of the 1997 Marlins team that won the World Series. Over the course of his career, he was named to two All-Star teams and won four gold glove awards.
But to the younger Johnson, baseball was boring.
“You would think I wish I would have played baseball, but I’ve never played,” Johnson said on The Slice Podcast with host Kasey Funderburg that Tennessee Football puts out every Monday. “I never even tried it.”
“I thought it was boring. Ever since I could remember, I’ve just always thought basketball is just, like, so much fun. That’s the first sport I ever played, and my dad, he never made me play baseball. He just let me do whatever I wanted to do.”
So instead of a career on the diamond like his father, Johnson played hoops and football growing up. By the time he was a sophomore at American Heritage High School in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Johnson was receiving serious interest from major colleges on the gridiron. He parlayed that interest into accepting a football scholarship from the University of Tennessee.
“This has probably surpassed what I thought it would have been in high school,” Johnson said of his experience to this point in his career. “I love Knoxville. It’s definitely a second home. I didn’t think that I’d become so comfortable in the setting I was in.”
“So once I did, I was like, ‘Wow.’ I was just happy. I still am.”
Johnson’s playing career on Rocky Top has had plenty of twists and turns through four years. He played in nine games as a true freshman in 2016 and then led the team in receiving yards his sophomore season in 2017 with 482 and tied for the team lead in receptions with 37.
Under the new leadership of Jeremy Pruitt in 2018, Johnson saw his playing time dip. After starting seven games during Butch Jones’ final season at the helm, Johnson started just two games as a junior in year one of Pruitt. He finished the season with 14 catches for 123 yards.
Heading into his true senior season last fall, Johnson was one of four senior wide receivers on UT’s roster along with Jauan Jennings, Marquez Callaway, and Tyler Byrd. Playing time was at a premium for Johnson, however, as he sat behind Jennings, Callaway, and Josh Palmer on the depth chart.
Johnson played in the first four games to begin the 2019 season. He scooped up a blocked punt in Tennessee’s win against Tennessee-Chattanooga and returned it for a touchdown, but he caught just two passes for 31 yards over the course of the first month of the season. Instead of watching his final season of eligibility slither away, Johnson and the coaching staff made the decision to redshirt and preserve his final year in Knoxville.
“I felt like I’d be better suited to help the team win and move forward if I sat out last year and came back this year,” Johnson said. “It was a business decision. But I felt like it’s what I had to do if I really wanted to help the team.
“It was a tough decision, but at the same time, once I made my decision, I was at peace with it. Yeah, it wasn’t fun to sit out. I got tired of sitting out. But at the same time, I knew it’s what I had to do. Every day you go to practice, you still get better. Every day you go to practice, you can help other guys get better, no matter what the circumstances are.”
In preserving his final year of eligibility, Johnson is set to be a key piece to a Tennessee wide receiver room that loses a ton of production from 2019. With Jennings and Callaway graduating, Tee Martin’s group must replace 89 catches, 1,604 yards, and 14 touchdowns in addition to 28 of Tennessee’s 48 completions of 20-plus yards last season.
Simply put, Jennings and Callaway accounted for 56 percent of the team’s receiving yardage last season and 74 percent of Tennessee’s receiving touchdowns.
Palmer figures to be the No. 1 wide receiver on this year’s team. Johnson will battle it out with former Georgia transfer Deangelo Gibbs for the No. 2 spot, and possibly the No. 3 slot with sophomore Ramel Keyton, as well as a slew of incoming freshmen. Even if Johnson isn’t one of the top three receivers this season, he’ll still play an important role in a young wide receiver room.
“It’s something (redshirting) that I had to do, and like I said, once I made my decision, I was at peace with it, because I knew I got another year coming up and another year to help the team the best way I can,” Johnson explained. “I know for a fact I bring a lot of positivity. I try to stay positive no matter what I do.
“Positivity, encouragement, and you can look to me if you need an example, because I’m not always the one yelling and doing everything out of whack, but I’ll definitely do what I need to do. If you need an example, you can look at me.”