Long before a junior season that would turn heads of players, high school coaches and college coaches across the region, Sterling Johnson had felt that he was destined for a breakout performance on the football field.
Even as his sophomore season was spent almost entirely on the jayvee squad. That is, until the playoffs arrived two years ago.
"This is actually funny. Me and my best friend, we were just talking about this a couple days ago. Our coach gave three good reasons: A., we were winning; B., he wanted me to mature more through playing time and game situations; C., the guy ahead of me that year actually finished with 19 sacks. Around the playoffs, when it's playoff time, there's no holding anything back every single game. Coach put me out there and told me to go play. We made it to the third round and lost by five points. It was pretty crazy, the last play we threw a double-pass in the end zone. The receiver got hit right as the ball arrived and it ended. To put it in perspective, we had five turnovers that game and still only lost by five points."
Johnson discusses the memory as if it was last week, because it is part of what fuels him. The nearly 6-foot-5, 274-pound defensive lineman is attracting major college attention from across the country and is crowding an offer list already near 10; one of the most recent being Tennessee.
"I do it for myself and my family for the free education and I do it for our community; it's real small," said the Clayton, N.C., native. "Literally it's really only been me and this other guy who have been D-1 Single A athletes from Johnson County the last 6 or 7 years. His name is Gary Clark, and he's committed to Cincinnati in basketball.
"It's not a certain school that's sticking out to me right now. And the only reason I say that is, besides two or three, all have won national championships or appeared in them. It's hard to separate a select few from so many good ones."
Johnson, however, immediately separate himself during his remarkable 2013 campaign in which he helped lead his Cleveland High School squad deep into the playoffs. Showing good instincts, burst off the ball and raw power, Johnson 80 tackles, including eight sacks, as well as three forced fumbles. But most eye-gouging? Johnson bruised opponents for 51 tackles for losses.
"A, I really feel as if I come off the ball very fast. I've seen on the forms of people who watch my highlight tape, they say I'm very strong and come off the ball fast," Johnson said. "And B., I play with a lot of hustle and intensity."
Johnson will take a similar approach to the recruiting process. Learning of his Vols' offer, Johnson called the UT football offices and quickly chatted with linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen. Johnson knows some about the Vols; his sister is friends with just-departed Vol defensive tackle Dan McCullers. And as a freshman, Johnson said his school faced off against Derrell Scott's school in the playoffs and that Scott's school "put a pretty bad beatdown on us." Johnson said he most remembers a hit leveled by Scott's teammate, Pharoh Cooper, on a teammate that became the stuff of legend.
Johnson anticipates seeing the Vols on a junior day in the next few weeks; he'll also make several other visits to high-profile programs as he continues to move along in the recruiting process.
"I'm visiting Clemson (today), N.C. State on Sunday, UNC on February 22, possibly visiting Tennessee the 15th for junior day, South Carolina on the 29th, and Wake Forest on March 1," Johnson said. "I feel like it's a really big decision. I want to get every detail I can from each school."