Bellevue West High School football coach Michael Huffman paints a clear picture of every big play Iowa commit Keagan Johnson has made the past four years.
There’s a lot of them.
But one that stands out is the 2019 Class A state championship game against Omaha Westside. Through the haze of a cold, blustery blizzard, Huffman called for a jet sweep on the fourth play of the game. Johnson took the ball on the outside, met Koby Bretz, a top-50 safety committed to Nebraska, about 8 yards into his run. Johnson lowered his shoulder and “trucks him,” then ran down field for a touchdown.
The Bellevue West Thunderbirds won the state title, 35-0.
“It was almost like his coming-out party,” Huffman said. “And then later on he scored on a reverse and it was unbelievable. Then this year, there was nothing that surprised us.”
Johnson, a 6-foot-1, 180-pound athlete from Bellevue, Neb., is one of the Hawkeyes’ seven four-star recruits in the 2021 class and one of two classified as an “athlete” because he can play multiple positions. But his hope is to contend for one of the vacancies at wide receiver.
“You see it with Ihmir Smith-Marsette and Brandon Smith that receivers can excel at Iowa,” Johnson said.
Huffman played Johnson wherever he needed. With plenty of wide receivers on the roster during Johnson’s sophomore year, he threw him in at cornerback.
“As a sophomore, he could’ve been a fifth receiver,” Huffman said. “Well, you don’t put someone with his talents on the sideline, so he started at corner.”
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During his junior year, Johnson was the only player on his team playing both sides of the ball: wide receiver, then safety in third-down passing situations. Johnson played wide receiver this past season, returned kicks and even took snaps at quarterback in the wildcat formation. But Huffman regrets not putting him in on defense, especially in this year’s state quarterfinals, where the Thunderbirds lost to Kearney, 41-40, on an overtime 2-point conversion.
That quarterfinal loss still stings a little. But Johnson’s dad, Clester Johnson, said he thinks it’s his favorite game he’s seen his son play.
“I saw him try to do everything he could to win the game,” Clester said. “He was playing quarterback, he was playing receiver. They actually came back and they just missed the extra point before overtime. If they just would have made that extra point, they would have won the game.
“He probably asked the coach if he could kick.”
Keagan brushed off the idea of him subbing in at kicker over the phone on Wednesday.
“Growing up I played soccer for a long time,” Keagan said. “Maybe I could do a kickoff, but I don’t know if I’m very accurate.”
Football runs in the family. Clester was a wingback for the 1994 and ’95 national championship-winning Nebraska Cornhuskers.
He doesn’t mind seeing his son go to Iowa. His time has passed and he enjoys watching his kids grow up through the sport more than he ever did playing himself.
He never pushed football. He always encouraged being a multisport athlete because more competition enhances who an athlete is as a competitor. Before his junior basketball season, Keagan told his dad he wanted to quit basketball, but he had to have reason. Since basketball requires a leaner weight, he told his dad he’d rather focus on conditioning for track and football to gain strength. Unfortunately, he lost his junior track season to the pandemic and enrolled at Iowa early this year.
“What really sucks was I was really looking forward to it,” Clester said. “As a sophomore, he ran 11.3 in the 100 meters. I just knew he was going to make a big jump and get into the 10s. You could clearly see it on the field this year.
“I think he would’ve had a chance to win state, but COVID happened.”
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Keagan’s older brothers, C.J. and Cade, played at Wyoming and South Dakota State, respectively. Cade is training for a spot on an NFL team and will play in the Senior Bowl. There’s one remaining Johnson in the lineup, Kai, who is 3 years old.
But Keagan never let the pressure of his brothers’ or dad’s accomplishments get to him. He embraces it.
“No one puts pressure on you, but automatically, it’s a natural instinct to put that pressure on yourself,” Keagan said. “I feel like I wouldn’t be where I’m at right now without that. It was a blessing that I push myself because I wanted to be like my brothers and my dad. I wanted to be better.”
Huffman has known Keagan since he was 10 years old, since he’s coached all three brothers. He thinks Keagan might be the best one yet, not just for his natural ability, but because he loves the weight room and wants to be the deciding factor in a game.
“Everyone’s going to be a stud athlete and what’s going to separate you is what’s between your ears,” Huffman said. “He’s hungry, he wants to make a name for himself. I think that’s another reason that he chose Iowa. He wanted to be Keagan Johnson, not Clester Johnson’s son.”
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