Pitt

Panther Hollow: Belle Vernon’s Johnson Clears A Path For Progress

By Matt Popchock
Dorian Johnson

Belle Vernon senior offensive lineman Dorian Johnson poses with head coach Aaron Krepps. Johnson signed and submitted his letter of intent to Pitt Wednesday. (Photo Credit: MSA Sports Network)

PITTSBURGH (93-7 THE FAN) — National Letter of Intent Day for major college football was a good one for Pitt, especially when Tyler Boyd joined its 27-man recruiting class, and fellow WPIAL superstar Dorian Johnson, another incoming Panther, saw it coming.

“I understand where he’s at. He has to do what’s best for him and his family. But I think he’s going to play a great role in our recruiting class, because he’s a great player,” the Belle Vernon offensive lineman said of the four-time state champion before both signed.

Boyd and Johnson, who took their official visits to Oakland together, have become close since, and the latter can certainly empathize with what the former endured.

Johnson (6’6″, 290 lbs.), the No. 20 offensive tackle and No. 92 nationwide prospect according to MaxPreps, was set to commit to Penn State before the Jerry Sandusky sexual abuse scandal broke. After careful consideration, he switched his allegiance to the Panthers.

“I decided [Penn State] just wasn’t for me,” said Johnson, a MaxPreps “Medium School” All-American and 2013 Big 33 selection. “I liked everything about Pitt. I liked the campus, I liked the coaches, and I’m cool with all the players, and my family’s cool with everybody there. It’s close to home, and a great education.

“I’ve been playing football since I was five years old, so just to make it this far, and to get an opportunity to play for a school like the University of Pittsburgh is a great accomplishment, for me and my family.”

Meanwhile, after leading nearby Clairton to another PIAA crown, Boyd, who will join Johnson on Pennsylvania’s Big 33 squad this summer, earned a U.S. Army All-American Bowl invite. He used the annual exhibition game as a platform for a verbal commitment to Pitt, but he also took official visits to West Virginia and Tennessee that proved more tempting than originally imagined before deciding to honor that verbal.

Now that the program and its fan base has a little more peace of mind about its short-term future, perhaps it’s time to get excited about the long-term future for Pitt.

“Like with any program, you just have to give it some time. I think the coaches do a great job of recruiting, and I think we’re getting some top-level recruits over the next couple years,” Johnson said. “We’ve just got to keep working, and I think we’ll string together some pretty good teams.”

In addition to shoring up the now-shallow wide receiver spot on Paul Chryst’s depth chart, Boyd is the kind of versatile player who can revolutionize an offense. That doesn’t happen without attrition, an area of the game where Chryst’s top teams, historically, have excelled. So it should come as no surprise the head coach has immediately upgraded his line with his first self-generated recruiting class; Johnson is one of seven offensive line prospects in Pitt’s Class of ’17.

Pitt, in its first year with Chryst at the helm, struggled to find consistency up front due to injuries, and consistency on offense in general. However, progress was made, particularly by pure freshman tight end J.P. Holtz, toward the end of 2012, a year that saw the team reduce its sacks allowed from 2011 and make enough room for Ray Graham to reach the elusive 1,000-rushing-yard mark.

When Holtz’s teammates and coaches weren’t praising him, they were raving about Fox Chapel ’12 product Adam Bisnowaty, who they say has made great physical self-improvement. After seeing Cory King, who was ahead of “Biz” on the 2012 opening night depth chart, take his lumps over the course of last season, one shouldn’t be surprised if Bisnowaty makes his Panther debut this fall at one of the tackle spots.

With similarly high expectations of Johnson, who started for all four varsity seasons with the Leopards under Aaron Krepps, should fans look for him alongside Bisnowaty?

“They said they could see me, maybe, getting some playing time next year, because there are a couple open spots,” Johnson said of Chryst, offensive line coach Jim Hueber, and offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph. “I know that doesn’t happen too often on the offensive line, so I wouldn’t be upset if I redshirted. But I’m definitely going to work my hardest…to play as soon as possible. I’m going to be going against kids who are just as strong and just as fast as me, but I think the best thing I have is the will to get better, and to work as hard as I possibly can to better myself.”

We can at least safely speculate that Johnson will be well groomed by Rudolph, another Belle Vernon grad, who handled the All-PIAA honoree’s recruitment and has already developed a good rapport.

“He has a lot of stories…he knows the area, and everything,” Johnson said.

Pitt may be getting younger on offense, but it is poised to gradually overcome that roster turnover with the addition of Johnson, the similar work ethic of Bisnowaty, and underclassmen Holtz, Drew Carswell, and Rushel Shell having grown from last year’s growing pains, to say nothing of Boyd’s rather fitting return to Heinz Field.

If the past year, all things considered, was also a painful one for Johnson on any level, he doesn’t let it show.

“It was pretty stressful, especially when [the Sandusky scandal] started happening, and my recruitment opened up. But I didn’t let it bother me too much,” he remarked. “I knew what I was set on, and I just laid my options out. I don’t have any regrets about it.”

The ACC will provide a great challenge for its new, unproven member. But now it appears Chryst can approach that challenge with the kind of team he wants.

(Follow me on Twitter @mpopchock.)

Check out the Panther Hollow blog at 937thefan.com for more.

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