Nate Conner remembers the moment he knew C.J. Johnson was a special talent.
Conner’s D.H. Conley High School team was engaged in a late November, third-round state 4-A playoff battle in 2015 against Pitt County rival Greenville Rose. Johnson was just a freshman receiver for the Vikings at the time and played for the varsity all season, but had only four catches.
“We had made a good run to the third round of the playoffs and played a really big game over that Thanksgiving weekend,” Conner said. “C.J. made two touchdown catches in the first quarter of that game. We wound up losing, but I knew we had something special on our hands at that point.”
Johnson’s two-catch, 86-yard, two-touchdown performance in the 49-47 loss against the eventual 4-A runner-up that season was just a prelude of things to come. The 6-foot-2, 205-pounder became one of the state’s most prolific receivers over the next two seasons, collecting 156 receptions for 3,302 yards and 52 touchdowns, while collecting scholarship offers from schools such as Duke, N.C. State, North Carolina and Virginia Tech along the way.
But the lure of following in the footsteps of record-setting ECU receivers such as Dwayne Harris, Justin Hardy and Zay Jones proved too strong to resist last week as Johnson gave his verbal commitment to join the Pirates’ recruiting Class of 2019.
Johnson became the sixth rising senior prospect to pick ECU last Thursday during a ceremony at Conley High. With former Conley star and current Pirate freshman quarterback Holton Ahlers looking on, Johnson chose ECU after giving strong consideration to North Carolina, according to Conner.
“It wasn’t an easy decision by any means for C.J.,” Conner said. “He was pulled back and forth ways a lot. North Carolina did a phenomenal job recruiting him. They have great personalities on their coaching staff and treated him very well. I was just really impressed with them.
“But in the end, I think growing up here and wanting to be a Pirate his whole life, it finally came back to that. In the past couple of weeks something just clicked with him and he knew this is what he wanted to do.”
Conner said the presence of Ahlers at ECU may have factored in Johnson’s decision, but it was more of a bonus than a pivotal reason for his choice. Ahlers signed with ECU in December and enrolled for the spring semester.
“There’s no doubt there’s a special relationship because they played together for three years,” Conner said. “But we made sure C.J. made his decision for C.J. The fact he had that resource gave him a comfort level [with ECU]. But C.J. didn’t want to do what was comfortable. He wanted to go to a place he felt would challenge him for the future. Holton being there was like a bonus being checked off in the pros and cons box to be a pro. He made the decision for him and not for Holton.”
Interestingly, Johnson might have wound up being a competitor for Ahlers’s position at Conley. While Ahlers was establishing himself as a freshman quarterback starter on the Conley varsity, Johnson was playing the same position for the middle school program.
By the time Johnson arrived at Conley in 2015, Ahlers had secured the quarterback job. But recognizing Johnson’s potential, Conner kept him on the varsity, using him first as a running back and then as a receiver. Johnson was impressive as a freshman rusher, racking up 193 yards and scoring three touchdowns on just 11 carries – a 17.5-yard average – before transitioning to receiver. He would catch six passes that season for 195 yards and four scores.
“When we split him out wide you could see his natural ability,” Conner said. “He is just a natural catcher. He has tremendous, big hands and plays the ball well.”
Johnson produced one of the best seasons by a receiver in North Carolina prep history the following season as a sophomore when he caught 88 passes for 1,755 yards and 21 touchdowns. His touchdown catches ranked among the top eight single-season totals in state history, while his yardage was among the best ten ever.
For an encore in 2017, Johnson grabbed 68 more passes from Ahlers for 1,577 yards and 31 touchdowns, the latter being the second-highest single-season amount in state history.
Conner said Johnson didn’t produce those statistics based on talent alone. Hard work enabled Johnson to take full advantage of his God-given abilities.
“This is a really gifted athlete,” Conner said. “But he’s also one of the hardest working players I’ve ever been around. Those two (Ahlers and Johnson) fed off that with one another. They took pride in their work ethic. C.J. Just continuously improved his craft every year because of work ethic.
“We kind of ran a different offense his freshman year. But we changed some things around with Holton becoming a junior that we really felt like would result in a breakout year for C.J. He had really matured his body in the weight room and wound up having a huge sophomore season.”
In addition to tremendous talent and a great work ethic, Johnson also exhibits a toughness that Conner greatly admires.
“One of my favorite C.J. Johnson moments occurred last year when we lost in the second round of the playoffs against Eastern Guilford,” Conner said. “We were down early and came back in the third quarter with some good momentum. C.J. ran a post route over the middle, caught it and landed very hard on his shoulder. He stayed down for a minute, and because we know he’s a tough kid we knew something wasn’t right.
“Well, two plays later he came back, ran the same route and made a huge catch. Two plays after that he took one (catch) about 60 yards down the sideline for a touchdown. That sums up his toughness and his competitiveness. He mentally pushed through it. That was really a special moment watching him do that.”
Conner expects Johnson to continue producing big numbers next fall, even though Ahlers has moved on to East Carolina.
“We have some other guys now who are going to have an opportunity [at quarterback],” he said. “But they’ll have a certain comfort level knowing they have a guy out there capable of making plays at receiver. He’s a security blanket for them. We’ll do some new things that should benefit C.J. and our new players.”