ATHENS -- Rico Johnson challenged Jeremy Pruitt, and Pruitt didn’t back down.
Johnson, then listed as a wide receiver, teased the new defensive coordinator at the end of summer workouts, saying he had what it took to start on Pruitt’s side of the ball. Pruitt listened and responded by offering the freshman a challenge of his own, the challenge of earning a starting spot at cornerback.
Despite his taunts, the reality of a switch never truly crossed Johnson’s mind until Pruitt’s decision became official.
“I didn’t really know. I was playing around with Coach Pruitt during summer,” Johnson said. “We were doing 7-on-7, and I was playing around saying, ‘I can play corner better than your corners.’ I didn’t think he’d go back and look at my highlights through high school.”
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Pruitt obviously saw something, and Johnson is glad he did. Ultimately, the receiver-turned-corner has one goal -- finding playing time. Both he and his coaches agree that the defensive backfield gives him the best chance to contribute early.
“He was excited about doing it. That was the big thing,” head coach Mark Richt said. “You want a guy to be excited about it, and he was more than happy. He looked at the depth in both spots and said, ‘I’ve got a much better shot to make an impact this year,’ so he was excited about it.”
It wasn’t the first time that the potential of Johnson playing for either unit had been addressed by coaches.
“When Rico came to camp way back, he played both sides of the ball,” Richt said. “Both sides of the ball wanted that kid. The offensive staff was just the first one to jump in there and say, ‘Let’s offer him.’ But I think both sides of the ball were very interested in him.”
By now, Johnson has mastered adapting to change. Dating back to high school, he has been faced with plenty of unexpected obstacles. His high school career began at Treutlen in Soperton. As a long-time resident of Swainsboro, however, Johnson wanted to play at Swainsboro after his sophomore year.
His transfer forced him to sit out his junior football season, but he was far from inactive. He spent his junior year focusing on track and field, which he missed the spring before because of the transfer. That focus paid off, as Johnson won the GHSA Class AA title in both the 100 meters and 200.
That speed translates to the football field. While he had lost some recruiting attention during his year off, he impressed coaches all over the nation with his combination of speed and ball skills. After running a 4.31 during a Bulldog recruitment camp in June 2012, he got his initial offer. Johnson committed to his “dream school” on the spot.
Unfortunately for Johnson, the road to Athens wouldn’t come that easy. The NCAA didn’t accept a few of his senior-year online classes, so he was faced with the decision of junior college or prep school. He opted to attend the in-state Georgia Prep Sports Academy as a wide receiver.
Johnson’s mind, however, always stayed with the Bulldogs.
“We had a college schedule, too,” Johnson said. “We played on Saturdays, so when we were on the bus going somewhere far, I’d tell coach, ‘Hey Coach, can we turn it onto the Georgia game?’ He’d always say, ‘I got you Rico.’ I would just visualize what I could’ve been out there doing.”
But the uncertainty of the recruiting process prevented Johnson from outright assuming he’d end up in a Georgia uniform.
“I had it in the back of my mind this is where I wanted to be,” he said. “But at times, I knew I might not be able to come back because of the numbers.”
In January, Johnson was re-offered to play offense. Position aside, he was thrilled that he finally had the opportunity to live out his dream with the Bulldogs.
“The first person I called was my mom and my grandma,” Johnson said. “I was like, ‘They re-offered me,’ and she was like ‘Baby, you know what you’ve got to do.’ I just smiled and said, ‘Yeah, I’m going back.’ ”
And now that he’s back, he has wasted no time making an early influence. In his short time in the secondary, Johnson has been “running with the ones,” although he recognizes that, in Pruitt’s system especially, no spot is safe.
The most experienced member of the secondary, Damian Swann, mentioned Johnson’s work ethic as a huge contributor to the secondary’s high energy in the preseason and encouraged him to keep fighting for those job openings.
“We lost three potential starters. That means that’s three potential jobs for people to come up and play in. That’s how you’ve got to look at it,” Swann said. “I want to play. This is what I’ve got to do to play and be successful. If I played any of those positions, and I wasn’t playing much, I’d be licking my chops ready to go camp.”
Johnson is doing just that, and he thinks Pruitt has taken notice.
“He likes that I compete. He likes that I give him 100 percent every time I step on the field. I’m never lagging around,” he said. “I do whatever they tell me to do.”