GREENSBORO — For the third consecutive year, an N.C. A&T football player has been selected in the NFL Draft.
Darryl Johnson left school early and was picked late, going to the Buffalo Bills with the 11th pick of the draft’s final round Saturday afternoon, the 225th overall selection.
Johnson was the MEAC’s defensive player of the year after a standout season as a redshirt junior. After the Aggies’ Celebration Bowl victory, he signed with Charlotte-based sports agent Robert Walker and gave up his final year of college eligibility to enter the draft.
A 6-foot-6, 253-pound defensive end, Johnson was a 2018 FCS All-America pick when he tied for eighth in the nation with 10½ sacks and ninth with 19 tackles for losses. His 50 tackles ranked fourth on A&T’s team and were the most by any Aggies defensive lineman.
He follows former A&T teammates Tarik Cohen and Brandon Parker into the draft. The Chicago Bears picked Cohen, a running back, in the fourth round in 2017, and the Oakland Raiders picked Parker, an offensive tackle, in the third round in 2018. Both were NFL starters last year.
Johnson, however, might have to bide his time. An edge rusher with outstanding footspeed, he is relentless in pursuit and an exceptionally hard worker. But despite adding 13 pounds to his A&T playing weight, he is still small by NFL standards. The average pro defensive end is 6 feet 4 inches tall and weighs 279 pounds, and the Bills will seek to add muscle to Johnson’s tall, long-limbed frame.
“I see myself as an outside linebacker or D-end, a stand-up pass rush guy coming off the edge,” Johnson said after declaring for the draft in January. “… Being at A&T, it’s a great program. It’s a championship program with great coaches. But I decided my best football is still ahead of me. I felt like I could grow a lot more if I could be around NFL guys and NFL coaches, that those guys could elevate me. I feel like I’m ready to take that step.”
Attempts to reach Johnson after he was picked Saturday were unsuccessful.
After a breakout season as a sophomore, Johnson was even better last season when A&T went 10-2 and finished ranked No. 3 in total defense among the nation’s 124 Football Championship Subdivision teams.
He was A&T’s first MEAC defensive player of the year since Chris McNeil in 1997, as well as a finalist for the Buck Buchanan Award for FCS’s top defensive player, an honor won by Southeast Missouri State linebacker Zach Hall.
The last two MEAC defensive players of the year were both high picks in the NFL draft and both won starting jobs as rookies. Defensive tackle Javon Hargrave was picked by the Steelers in the third round, and linebacker Darius Leonard was picked by the Colts in the second round.
But both Hargrave and Leonard were two-time winners of the MEAC honor, each winning in his junior and senior years.
With Johnson in the starting lineup the last two years, A&T went a combined 22-2 and won back-to-back MEAC championships, Celebration Bowl games and black college national championships.
“It was a hard decision,” Johnson said in January. “People were questioning me all season, ‘Are you coming out? Are you coming out?’ I was like, ‘I don’t know.’ Because I didn’t know. …
“I just want to say thank you to A&T for everything. I love the school, love everything about it. I love my teammates, my coaches, the alumni. It’s been a great ride. And there’s more to come ahead.”