In his fifth season at Ohio State, Xavier Johnson finally feels at peace with his role as a jack-of-all-trades for the Buckeyes.
When Johnson thinks back on the earlier years of his Ohio State career, he’d be lying if he said there weren’t times he regretted his decision to walk on at Ohio State instead of taking one of his scholarship offers. He’d be lying if he said he didn’t have thoughts about transferring somewhere else where he’d have a more immediate opportunity to play a substantial role.
Despite the doubts within his head and people close to him encouraging him to transfer, Johnson chose to stay in Columbus.
“I was a zealous freshman coming in, I thought that I was gonna come in and everybody was gonna bow down to me, and it was gonna be something where I shocked the world,” Johnson told Eleven Warriors. “When that didn't happen, there was a lot of nights where I was questioning my decision, trying to figure out exactly what to do.
“And I turned to prayer, and I felt like the Lord kept me here. And he continued to keep me here. And there were multiple times where I'm not gonna lie, I wanted to maybe transfer. I felt like I had better opportunities elsewhere. I wasn't really confident in myself. But through prayer, I felt like it led to stay here.”
Now a fifth-year senior with a scholarship, Johnson is reaping the rewards of his patience and dedication to the Buckeyes.
Johnson has changed positions numerous times throughout his career, committing to Ohio State to play wide receiver but spending time at running back and even cornerback. In his first four years as a Buckeye, nearly all his playing time came on special teams.
Those constant position changes frustrated Johnson, as he felt he kept getting moved as soon as he gained traction at one position. But his experience learning to play various roles has enabled his emergence this season as one of Ohio State’s most versatile and valuable contributors.
Johnson’s value to this year’s Buckeyes became clear immediately after Jaxon Smith-Njigba was injured in Ohio State’s season opener against Notre Dame. Johnson took Smith-Njigba’s place in the lineup at slot receiver, caught the go-ahead touchdown pass in Ohio State’s eventual 21-10 win and proceeded to tackle the returner on the Buckeyes’ ensuing kickoff.
Johnson’s playmaking ability became even more apparent in Ohio State’s 56-14 win two weekends ago over Indiana. While Johnson had spent the entire season practicing at wide receiver up to that point, he took several snaps at running back against the Hoosiers with TreVeyon Henderson, Miyan Williams and Chip Trayanum all dealing with injuries.
Although he got only three offensive touches, Johnson turned them into 118 yards. He caught two passes out of the backfield for 47 yards and took his only rushing attempt to the end zone for a 71-yard touchdown run on which he made a bevy of defenders miss.
With his performance against the Hoosiers, Johnson made it clear that he’s not simply a feel-good story or an overachiever but a gifted playmaker with the ability to be an impact player on offense when given the opportunity.
For Johnson, that game validated all the hard work he’s put in since he joined the Buckeyes in 2018.
“My whole goal was to be able to give everything I have to this program,” Johnson said. “In the losses and everything that I went through, I always ached because I wanted to do more. I wanted to have more of an impact on the game. And so I felt that the Lord kept me here, and he gave me the opportunity to continue to beat on that rock. And when it finally cracked, you saw kind of what it was when I got the opportunity.”
Despite that performance against Indiana, Johnson played only two offensive snaps last weekend against Maryland. Yet that didn’t stop him from making a significant impact against the Terrapins, too. For the second week in a row, Johnson recovered a punt blocked by Lathan Ransom. He also had Ohio State’s longest kickoff return of the season with a 47-yard runback in the fourth quarter, setting up a crucial touchdown drive for the Buckeyes in their eventual 43-30 win.
Even as his role has expanded on offense, Johnson has remained a vital special teams player, playing the most special teams snaps of any Buckeye this season (214). Johnson has embraced his role of playing on just about every special teams unit, and Day believes that’s a big reason why he’s also succeeded when he’s gotten opportunities on offense.
“He learned, coming through special teams, all the different ways to play football,” Day said. “You just learn so much playing all four phases, and he's done that. He's embraced it. You're playing out in space on kickoff return, you're learning how to avoid blocks, you're learning how to block people, you're learning how to catch the ball when he's the kickoff return guy. He's done some punt return work in practice. There's just so many different things and skills that you learn playing special teams and that's translated to him being productive on the field.”
Had Johnson accepted one of the scholarship offers he was given out of high school, he may have emerged as an impact player much sooner. But now that he’s making the impact he always thought he could for Ohio State, he’s happy he chose to take the harder path.
Johnson believes he’s a better player now than he would be if he had a quicker route to playing time as a highly touted recruit elsewhere. Johnson, whose final decision as a recruit came down to Ohio State and North Dakota State, said that factored into his choice to become a Buckeye back then.
“I was mature enough to make the decision where I didn't want to go to somewhere where I felt like I wasn’t going to be developed because I would have went in as someone who's like already praised,” Johnson said. “I think to be great, you have to be around greatness … I've been prepared at the highest of levels. (Wide receiver coach Brian Hartline) does an excellent job, (running backs coach Tony) Alford does an excellent job.”
He may have preferred to stick at one position and earn a spot in the rotation sooner, but he wouldn’t have the same versatility to play all the different roles he does now if things had worked out that way.
“I think that my whole story, I was being prepared for this,” Johnson said. “There was a lot of questioning why I was bouncing back and forth and why I couldn't get my feet grounded in one room. But, like I said, I think the Lord had a plan. His plan, he saw past the trouble I had in that moment, and he was able to see to right now where I'm more capable to switch back and forth and I can do so seamlessly as opposed to having trouble one way or another.”
Johnson’s college career has been unconventional from the beginning, as it’s rare for a three-star recruit as he was to choose a preferred walk-on offer over a scholarship. That decision could have easily led to a career of watching from the sidelines for Johnson, and his opportunities to play on offense now are still more sporadic than they’d likely be at most other schools.
But the Cincinnati native has fulfilled his vision of becoming an impact player for the team he grew up watching — a team that’s ranked second in the country and has national championship aspirations — and the playmaking ability and versatility he’s shown in the opportunities he’s gotten could give him a real chance to play in the NFL after his Ohio State career concludes.
“I think it's definitely going to help me in that process,” Johnson said. “It'll give me the ability to play on special teams, to play running back, to play receiver and give me some value that I don't think many other people have.”
“My whole goal was to be able to give everything I have to this program.” – Xavier Johnson on staying the course at Ohio State
While Johnson may not have been a known name to non-diehard Ohio State fans before this season, he’s long been among the most respected players inside the Woody Hayes Athletic Center. Johnson’s character, work ethic and selflessness have been big reasons for that, with Alford describing Johnson before this season as “the consummate team player.”
“I’ll speak for the entire staff on that one: I think every single coach in that building would lay it on the line for that kid and what he’s done for this program,” Alford said in August. “That’s testimony of a guy that’s been moved around, maybe hasn’t gone his way all the time. He didn’t pout. He didn’t complain. He just put his head down and said, ‘What do I gotta next to get better?’
“I don't care if you are a walk-on, if you were a five-star recruit coming in; first-team, fifth-team, doesn't matter. Everybody goes through stuff. Right? And all Xavier has done in my eyes is just continue to persevere and find ways to overcome whatever was happening.”
Tony Alford had lots of great things to say today about fifth-year walk-on wide receiver Xavier Johnson, who spent part of his Ohio State career at running back before moving back to wide receiver. pic.twitter.com/4jlKh08gB6— Dan Hope (@Dan_Hope) August 5, 2022
All of that said, Johnson has also impressed his coaches and teammates with his talent, as he’s proven he belongs on the field at Ohio State despite his career’s humble beginnings.
“He's a Swiss Army knife. He does everything. He's on all four special teams units. Running back, wide receiver, he can play DB if you really needed him to. He's ready to step into any role that Coach Day or anyone on the staff gives him, and he executes it to his full potential. So he's someone I really look up to when it comes to just doing your job and doing it the right way,” said fellow wide receiver Emeka Egbuka.
“And that's the type of people you want on the field … you know if he's in, that his job is done, it's good. His guy's not going to make the tackle, he's gonna catch the ball, he's gonna run the right route, etc., etc.”
Johnson's teammates often refer to him as “Weapon X,” and Marvin Harrison Jr. says that’s because “he can do so many things.”
“It’s a tribute to his mind, his intelligence with football. Being able to play running back, slot receiver, outside receiver, just being able to move him around,” Harrison said. “I'm very proud of him. He puts a lot of work in, so he deserves all the credit he’s given.”
Johnson will get another well-earned moment of recognition before Ohio State’s final game of the regular season against Michigan on Saturday, when he will be one of 23 players honored during Ohio State’s Senior Day ceremony. Knowing how hard he’s worked to get to where he is now will make that moment all the more special for Johnson.
“It's kind of the culmination of everything that was going on. Everything that I've been through here,” Johnson said. “It's been, you know, the good, the bad and the ugly. All of it has been a process, has been a growth, has been a maturation process. So I think just being able to share this moment with my teammates, with my brothers who have bled, sweat with me, cried with me; along with my family, who is the only reason I'm in this space, my family and the Lord. I think that those, kind of culminating all those things and bringing them to a head and celebrating them, it's always gratifying.”
Johnson isn’t satisfied with what he’s already accomplished, though. As the Buckeyes begin the defining stretch of their season, Johnson wants to find even more ways to make an impact and help them achieve their goals of beating Michigan, winning the Big Ten championship and winning a national title.
“I believe that I'm still working every day to get better. I never want to get to a place where I'm complacent,” Johnson said. “So I think that hunger has me still desiring to work and to get better. Even if there's shoot, if there's two weeks or if there’s five weeks left in the season, I'm just designed to be the best player that I can be.”