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Why Washington's recruitment of 4-star DL Jericho Johnson looms large

DerekJohnsonDerekJohnson Administrator, Swaye's Wigwam Posts: 53,529
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As they did a year ago, the Washington Huskies will bring several of their key recruiting targets to campus for official visits in June.

There are 18 prospects due in Seattle before the end of next month, per 247Sports, with 13 of those scheduled for the weekend of June 23. There’s Paki Finau, a four-star offensive lineman already committed to the Huskies. There’s Emmett Mosley, a four-star receiver, and Peyton Waters, a four-star athlete who plays both receiver and defensive back. There are other DBs, other offensive linemen, a couple linebackers, a tight end. With three players committed so far, the Huskies could use a big June to start filling out their 2024 class.

If there is a single visiting prospect, though, whose eventual commitment would be most crucial for the Huskies as they shape their roster beyond the 2023 season, it’s probably the highest-rated guy on the list.

But not merely because he is the highest-rated guy on the list.

Jericho Johnson is a four-star defensive lineman from Armijo High in Fairfield, Calif. 247Sports considers him the No. 105 overall prospect in the 2024 class (though he checks in at No. 209 in the composite). He’s listed at 6-4 and 300 pounds, a true interior player, and his junior-year highlights make you wonder how opposing offenses ever move the ball against him. Johnson piles up sacks and TFLs, occasionally on running plays before the quarterback can even hand the ball off.

“You don’t see a lot of guys that size able to move as well as he does,” said Billy Nicoe Hurst, Armijo’s defensive coordinator. “We have guys here the same size as him, even bigger. But they’re just not as twitchy and different as he is. … He’ll go from the goofy, fun-loving kid around campus, always smiling. Then he flips that switch, and he’s the definition of controlled violence within a sport.”

If you follow West Coast recruiting, you likely know that elite defensive tackles exist in fewer numbers out here than any other position. The 2024 class only reinforces this truth. Of the top-100 interior defensive linemen ranked by 247Sports, only six reside within Washington’s traditional recruiting footprint (think of it as Washington, California, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, Hawaii, Colorado, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming).

Two of them — Johnson and three-star Keona Wilhite from Tucson (Ariz.) Salpointe — are scheduled to visit UW on the same weekend in June, though Wilhite is a leaner body who projects as an edge rusher. Aydin Breland from Santa Ana (Calif.) Mater Dei — a five-star in 247Sports’ own rankings — is the No. 6 overall d-lineman in the composite. Breland and Johnson are the only West Coast players among the national top-60 at their position.

“You don’t see a lot of guys his size out in this area,” Armijo coach Don Mosley said of Johnson. “We’ve got a lot of speed guys, a lot of fast guys. California is always known for its speed and skill guys, but you rarely hear about a defensive lineman as dominant as him.”

Bud Elliott, a longtime college football reporter now working for 247Sports, researched this topic for Banner Society in 2019, though he focused on California specifically. His conclusion: there is a dwindling supply of big defensive linemen in the state, but no obvious reason as to why.

None of the three interior d-line recruits to sign in coach Kalen DeBoer’s first two recruiting classes were from the West Coast. The Huskies signed twin brothers Jayvon and Armon Parker from the Detroit area in 2022, and Elinneus Davis from Moorhead, Minn., in 2023. They also flipped Ulumoo Ale from offensive line to defensive tackle, figuring that a 6-foot-6, 330-pound body might better help the team on that side of the ball.

It feels like a pivotal time for UW’s d-line roster construction. Ale and multiyear starter Tuli Letuligasenoa will move on after this season. Former four-star prospects Faatui Tuitele and Jacob Bandes — coveted recruits in the 2019 class, for the same reason Jericho Johnson is now — are both fifth-year players who will be gone after 2024. Three-star 2021 signee Kuao Peihopa transferred to Hawaii. Another 2021 signee, Siaosi Finau, entered the transfer portal this spring, and the third, Voi Tunuufi, might end up playing more on the edge this season, and will be gone after 2024, anyway.

The Huskies didn’t sign any interior d-linemen in 2020. It’s also one of three positions, along with offensive line and safety, which the current staff has not yet supplemented via the transfer portal.

Johnson would be an interesting prospect, regardless. He sat down last year for a two-part interview with the Watch Me Develop podcast, co-hosted by his father, Donald. It’s on YouTube, and it’s an illuminating look at Johnson’s background. He’s a devout Christian who helps run the broadcasts at the church where his parents work as young-adult pastors. As a kid, Jericho tucked his toes underneath the couch, his dad said, to do sit-ups during commercial breaks as he watched cartoons or sports. When he played Pop Warner, other families would record the games and send the family DVD copies. “This dude is literally watching the video like it’s film,” Donald says on the podcast. “As a kid, though. He’s literally just engaged in watching it.”

Hurst saw Johnson for the first time ahead of his sophomore year. He stood out, but for more than his size.

“He led the team,” Hurst said. “You initially thought he was a senior, and then you find out he’s a freshman going into his sophomore year, and you’re like, ‘OK, that kid is special.’ He’s different. … how he ran, how he moved, how he could learn install instantly and apply it.”

Hurst had been a defensive quality control coach at Youngstown State, where he played cornerback and safety from 2016-17. Johnson asked him how to get recruited to play in college. He told Johnson’s father: “If you stick to the process, Jericho will be a Power 5 kid.”

So far, Johnson reports 20 scholarship offers. Hurst tweeted a photo earlier this week of UW defensive line coach Inoke Breckterfield and co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach Chuck Morrell visiting Armijo. Cornerbacks coach Juice Brown stopped by earlier this month. Johnson speaks highly of Courtney Morgan, Washington’s director of player personnel. Coaches from Alabama, Nebraska, Oregon, Utah, USC and several others have come through the school recently, too.

Johnson will take an official visit to Miami the weekend before he visits Washington, and has taken unofficial visits to several other schools — including UW, for the Michigan State game last season and for the spring preview last month. On the aforementioned podcast, Johnson raved about his first unofficial to Oregon last year, and he was in Eugene again last month. He’s also unofficially visited defending national-champion Georgia, and has an offer from the Bulldogs.

From Hurst’s perspective, Johnson’s recruitment appears “very open.”

“He’s very receptive to what coaches are saying,” Hurst said. “He pays attention to all the details. The little things are very important to him.”

I called Brock Huard last year for a big-picture story about how Washington might navigate the changing landscape in college football. The former UW quarterback and current FOX analyst recalled sitting next to Chris Petersen on a flight, prior to his first season as the Huskies’ coach in 2014.

Huard asked him: If you’re going to bring UW back, what’s most important?

“He really didn’t hesitate — he said, ‘defensive line,’” Huard told me then.

During Petersen’s six seasons, the Huskies had five interior defensive linemen earn first-team all-conference honors: Levi Onwuzurike, Greg Gaines, Vita Vea, Elijah Qualls and Danny Shelton. All were drafted. Shelton and Vea were first-rounders.

Onwuzurike in 2019, though, remains Washington’s most recent all-conference selection at the position.

Johnson isn’t the only interior d-line prospect visiting in June. He’ll be on campus the same weekend as another of UW’s top targets, Ratumana Balabaluva from Carlsbad, Calif. (His recruiting profile lists him as an edge rusher, but don’t be surprised if the Huskies like him on the interior.)

They need more than Johnson, and one guy never makes or breaks a class, and he obviously has plenty of high-profile options. But with blue-chip d-linemen in such short supply out west, it’s easy to circle Johnson as one of UW’s most pivotal targets in this cycle.

“A lot of people initially thought, OK, he’s an o-lineman — until they saw him play,” Hurst said. “He proved that he is a legitimate defensive tackle. I think they just didn’t expect to see it because it’s such a rare thing to see out here in California, especially at these public schools.”

— Christian Caple, On Montlake


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