Darryl Johnson watched the NFL Draft on TV at his home near Savannah, Ga., surrounded by his extended family. He waited until the last round on the last day before he heard his named called.
Johnson, a 6-foot-6 defensive end from N.C. A&T, had left school early and was picked late, going to the Buffalo Bills with the 11th pick of the seventh round Saturday afternoon, the 225th overall selection.
Where he went didn’t matter, Johnson said. That he went, well, that mattered a lot.
“I wasn’t nervous at all,” Johnson said. “At the end of the day, I knew I was going to get a shot to play football. I was excited that I got drafted. That’s a dream come true, to hear your named called. I knew God had a plan for me. I kept my faith high, and things worked out.”
The MEAC’s defensive player of the year and an FCS All-American, Johnson gave up his final season of college eligibility when he signed with Charlotte-based sports agent Robert Walker in January, a month after the Aggies won their second consecutive Celebration Bowl.
It was risky. Johnson has NFL-caliber speed for a defensive lineman, but he’s small by pro standards. The average NFL defensive end is 6 feet 4 inches tall and weighs 279 pounds.
“When I left school in January and started training, that first day I was 232 pounds,” Johnson said. “So, I’ve put on a lot of weight, a lot of muscle. It’s good, man. I'm still just as fast, but I've worked on my lower body and I feel more explosive. I feel like I can do a lot more, that I’ve added to my arsenal. There’s more weight behind me, and I’m a lot stronger.”
At the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, Johnson weighed 253 pounds. He showed off his strength there in the bench press with 20 reps of 225 pounds.
But he didn’t participate in any other drills, creating more questions than he answered.
“I did a lot of interviews at the NFL Combine,” Johnson said, “but I had tweaked my hamstring, so I didn’t do a lot of the workouts. … It just wasn’t meant for me to perform there, not part of God’s plan for me. I’d never tweaked a hamstring before in my life. I waited it out, and Pro Day came.”
Even on Pro Day, all his results were labeled “unhealthy” because he was still healing.
“I still wasn’t 100 percent,” Johnson said, “but I put up some solid numbers that kept me in the game. I ran the 40 (yard dash) in the high 4.7s (seconds), but I’ve run a 4.65 before, and they knew that.”
Johnson said the Bills were the most interested team on that pro day.
“I’ve been talking with the Bills on and off,” Johnson said. “The coach who called me to tell me they were drafting me was the same guy (linebackers coach Bob Babich) who worked me out on Pro Day. He took me out to eat that day, and we kind of built a relationship there. We learned each other’s stories about where we came from. I could tell he liked me then.”
The next call Johnson got on his draft day was from a former teammate and current Chicago Bears All-Pro Tarik Cohen.
“Tarik was hype, man,” Johnson said. “He just said he’s proud of me, and proud of all of us, really. He told me to get to work, that the job isn’t done. When I get there, go to work and show them what HBCU football is all about, what A&T football is all about, what Aggie Pride is.”
In his last year at A&T, Johnson was a finalist for the Buck Buchanan Award for the FCS defensive player of the year. 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 No. 3-ranked defense and were the most by any Aggies defensive lineman.
But all of that means nothing now, Johnson said.
“I’m starting all over again,” he said. “It’s like being a freshman again, learning everybody’s name, building relationships with my new coaches and teammates. I’ve got a new playbook to learn. I want to find a veteran I can get up underneath who can teach me the ropes of how everything works.
“Most of all, I want to prove to everybody that I can play and that I deserved to be here.”