INDIANAPOLIS — Articulate, well-spoken and naturally confident, Marvin McNutt and Leonard Johnson took the stage at the NFL Scouting Combine and impressed everyone with their stories of maturation and overcoming adversity.
McNutt, an Iowa wide receiver, told the throng of reporters he originally wanted to become a professional three-sport athlete. Johnson, an Iowa State cornerback, talked about his mother the sheriff and his father the barber owner. Both have aspirations of NFL greatness and their journey begins this week with the NFL draft.
Many draftniks project the players landing anywhere from the second to the fifth round. Dan Shonka, general manager and national scout for Ourlads Scouting Services, puts McNutt in the third round to Cincinnati and Johnson in the fourth round to San Francisco. NFLDraftScout.com lists Johnson as a fourth- or fifth-rounder and McNutt as a fifth-round pick.
McNutt and Johnson have competed against one another for several years, and their competition spilled over to practices at the Senior Bowl earlier this year. There’s a mutual respect among the players, and each considers the other among the best they faced in college.
“At the Senior Bowl they had some good DBs,” McNutt said. “Leonard Johnson’s pretty good. We had some good battles. I would say he was (the best he faced in a game).”
Five days before the de facto “State Super Bowl” last fall, the 5-foot-10 Johnson touted opponent McNutt (6-3) as one of the nation’s best wide receivers. McNutt reciprocated one day later. They already had squared off twice previously in a pair of Iowa victories. In 2009, McNutt caught one pass for 23 yards and Johnson registered five tackles and a pass breakup in a 35-3 Iowa win.
In 2010, McNutt caught two passes for 75 yards — including a 66-yard pass on Johnson — in the Hawkeyes’ 35-7 win. McNutt also blocked Johnson nearly the entire length of the field on Adam Robinson’s 75-yard run. Johnson registered just three tackles in the blowout.
In 2011, Iowa State prevailed 44-41 in triple overtime, a game in which both players posted solid numbers. McNutt caught four passes for 61 yards, while Johnson had five tackles and a forced fumble that led to the Cyclones’ first touchdown.
“He’s a tough guy,” McNutt said. “We had some battles. He’s another rival. I’m sure he watched plenty of my film as I did on him. It’s just a good game. Iowa State, we hate them — they’re our in-state university. He played a good game.”
Johnson faced the nation’s best assortment of college wide receivers throughout the season. His competitors include likely first-round draft picks Justin Blackmon (Oklahoma State) and Kendall Wright (Baylor). Then you add likely draft picks McNutt, Rutgers’ Mohamed Sanu, Texas A&M’s Jeff Fuller among others. Johnson tabbed Blackmon as the most difficult to cover — Blackmon in turn said, “I just think he’s better than the rest of the corners I’ve faced,”
McNutt in turn propped up Iowa cornerback Shaun Prater as his best. The two pounded at each other every day in practice for nearly four years.
“I always will attribute that to Shaun Prater,” McNutt said. “He knows me the best. We’d go up against each other every day in practice and fight probably every day in practice. He’s probably the best.”
Johnson ended the regular season as a second-team all-Big 12 cornerback. McNutt was selected as the Big Ten’s top wide receiver in 2011 by league coaches. He owns school records for season and career receiving yards and touchdowns.
“I think Marvin McNutt at that time was the hardest receiver because he was the first big receiver I faced early in the season,” Johnson said. “He kind of prepped me and paved the road for the other guys that I had to go against that were big and physical. He brought it every rep, and he wasn’t backing down.
“I remember I got him one time underneath his chin, and I noticed he wasn’t wearing a mouthpiece. I thought I could get him every time, but he came back and he continued to fight. It was just a battle.”Next weekend, both McNutt and Johnson will know their destination. And their rivalry likely will continue.