Cade Johnson had a football. He needed a quarterback.
So in the thick of the pandemic, isolated from his teammates and friends, one of the best small-school receivers called on a familiar face to get ready for the NFL draft.
Several nights in 2020, Cade and little brother Keagan ran routes on the turf at Bellevue West as Clester Johnson fired spirals at them. The old man hadn’t forgotten. Before playing wide receiver for Tom Osborne’s national championship teams in 1994-95, Clester was an all-state quarterback for the Thunderbirds.
“I’m not gonna lie, but my dad’s arm is still there,” Cade said. “He was still throwing rockets.”
There was just one complication: getting loose.
“Oh, goodness gracious,” Clester said. “They give me a hard time because I need 10 minutes to warm up my arm.”
NFL prospects aren’t supposed to spend their final college year playing catch with their fathers. But Cade Johnson, who’s expected to be selected Friday or Saturday, has taken a most unusual path to the biggest weekend of his football life.
He hasn’t played a real game since the FCS playoffs in December 2019, spending most of the past 17 months training individually in Omaha.
“I miss it so much,” Cade said. “Whichever team is getting me, I’m 100% ready to go and ready to play a lot of football.”
The 5-foot-10, 185-pounder has needed patience before. The Bellevue West standout got overlooked by FBS schools and took a walk-on invitation from South Dakota State. He redshirted his first year, 2016.
Then Johnson busted out, earning freshman All-America honors for returning kicks. Cade followed with back-to-back All-America seasons at receiver, catching 139 balls for 2,554 yards and 25 touchdowns in 2018 and 2019.
When COVID-19 ruined South Dakota State’s 2020 season, Johnson had at least three options:
One, play his senior season (and pursue a national title) at SDSU in the spring of 2021. The downside? It might inhibit his NFL draft chances.
Two,go to a Power Five school, where he could play his senior year in the fall of 2021. That’s what Montana wideout Samori Toure did when he transferred to Nebraska. But that meant waiting another year to be a pro — Cade is already 23.
(Johnson might have pursued an immediate transfer to an FBS team in 2020, but he just missed graduating last August. Transferring a few academic hours short of his degree would’ve set him back another year academically.)
Three, sit out his senior season and prepare for the 2021 draft. It was the loneliest choice and likely required the most self-determination. But Cade doesn't lack drive.
“When you look back at everything from Little League to high school,” Clester said, “the dude has always been the underdog. Most people see a little guy. Cade has always just had the desire to say, somehow, some way, I’m going to find a way to beat you.”
Cade worked out daily with Gibbie Duval at Xplosive Edge. He finished his degree online. On Friday nights, he watched Keagan’s games at Bellevue West.
By sitting out, Johnson placed enormous emphasis on his draft workouts. The Senior Bowl was his major chance to face the best Power Five prospects, the guys he’d watched on TV.
“I was hungry to prove a point, but I didn’t dwell on it or think about it,” Cade said. “I just let it happen.”
And he shined. Scouts hailed his hands, quickness and route running, calling him a “sleeper.” Johnson’s draft grades project him as a mid- to late-round pick.
On Sunday night, he’ll sit down and watch his old SDSU teammates in the FCS quarterfinal on ESPN2. He’s rooting for the Jackrabbits to win a national title.
But first he’ll focus on his own future. He’ll gather Friday and Saturday with friends and family, his cellphone charged so he doesn’t miss an NFL call. If all goes according to plan, Cade will celebrate his opportunity to play again. Finally.
“Good things,” he said, “come to those who wait.”
Photos: Nebraskans selected in first round of NFL draft
This is a collection of football players who graduated from high schools in Nebraska and then became first-round NFL draft picks after college. Did we miss anyone? Let us know by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org