LAFAYETTE — It’s late in what has been a long and hot practice Wednesday evening, the sixth in as many days for UL-Lafayette’s football team, and Kendall Johnson has a smile on his face.
And why not?
Johnson is back home, where he grew up and first found a love of football. He’s in graduate school at the university that both his parents attended, and the one he grew up following and supporting.
He has his political science degree in his pocket, and law school could be in his future.
He’s getting the chance to play one more year of college football, and even as a newcomer in the Ragin’ Cajun program, the coaching staff has entrusted him not only as a starter at cornerback, but also to lead a position group that was best described as shaky not too many months ago.
Life is pretty good for a guy who grew up wanting to be a Ragin’ Cajun, one that had to go several states away to make a name for himself, and who saw the chance to return to his hometown school with a new staff and a clean slate.
“To me, this all means the world,” Johnson said. “I’m back where I grew up watching and cheering for, and where people wanted me to come and be a part of something special.”
Before January, the 6-foot, 192-pound Johnson had spent the past 3½ years at Nevada, which signed him after a standout two-way career at St. Thomas More High. He played in all 13 games as a true freshman in 2014, including a game against the Cajuns in the New Orleans Bowl that December, and was a starter in both 2015 and 2016.
But even though he started all 12 games as a junior two years ago, he saw his playing time diminish as Nevada slipped to 5-7 after winning marks in his first two seasons.
Nevada then changed its coaching staff after the 2016 season, and Johnson made the decision to look at his options. He sat out last fall while completing work on his bachelor’s degree, knowing that he would have a year remaining after graduation with NCAA rules allowing immediate eligibility for transferring players who have their degrees.
“It was going to be my senior year, my last year,” he said. “I felt that I owed it to myself to make it special, wherever that might be.”
He only looked in one direction.
“It was hard leaving (Nevada),” he said. “I wanted to finish out my time there. We had some great guys and we got really close. We were from all different parts of the country and we were a close group. My time at Nevada, I had a great time and experienced some great things with some great people.”
But when the Cajuns program changed coaches in December, Johnson saw an opportunity.
“UL was the first contact I made,” he said. “Coach (Mike) Desormeaux got in touch with me and it just happened.”
It happened at just the right time for the Cajuns, because not long after Billy Napier was hired as coach in December, he saw big holes and little experience and depth in the secondary, especially at cornerback.
“He really gave us stability in the winter, because cornerback was really a position of concern,” Napier said. “We were able to bring in a guy that not only had a ton of experience, he was also a local player and we knew he was going to be comfortable here. He’s obviously confident in the things that he’s done.”
Playing for Hall of Fame coach Jim Hightower at St. Thomas More, he caught 60 passes for more than 1,100 yards and 14 TDs as a senior. He added eight interceptions in the secondary in his final two years in earning all-district honors both ways.
Hd offers from Tulsa, Tulane, UL-Monroe and Nevada among others — but none from the Ragin’ Cajuns.
“They recruited me but didn’t offer me,” he said. “It hurt, I’m not going to lie. But everything happens for a reason.”
At Nevada, he had an interception and a 45-yard return against Washington State in his second college game, and played every game as a true freshman in a season that ended in New Orleans when UL-Lafayette beat the Wolf Pack 16-3 in the bowl. The following year he started 12 of 13 games, had 48 tackles while playing both safety and cornerback, and made four tackles in Nevada’s win over Colorado State in the Arizona Bowl.
“All you have to do is talk to him and you can tell he’s not a rookie,” said Cajun defensive coordinator Ron Roberts. “He picks things up instantly, he’s got a ton of knowledge about the position. He gave us something we needed badly.”
He became part of this year’s recruiting class between the fall and spring semesters, and by the second week of January Johnson was leading offseason drills.
“The coaches talked to be about being in a leadership role, talking to the young guys and trying to mold them into different situations,” he said. “When I was a young guy at Nevada the older guys talked to me and helped me, so I’d been in that situation.”
“That situation” could have been tense, with a returning defensive group being led by a newcomer, but Johnson said the transition has been nothing but positive.
“Coming home I thought there would be a lot of pressure,” he said. “I went through a coaching change there (at Nevada) and I knew I had to buy in here. It’s new, but it has really been great. It’s been kind of relaxing and I’m playing a lot more free. I’m in better shape than I’ve ever been in from the off-season program, and being out here has been really a stress relief for me.”