Leon Johnson III planned on teaching math. Instead he’s a factor for OSU

Leon Johnson III planned on teaching math. Instead he’s a factor for OSU

How the receiver-needy Cowboys found Johnson at an NCAA Division III school in Oregon.

Ben Hutchens

By Ben Hutchens

| Nov 2, 2023, 5:34pm CDT

Ben Hutchens

By Ben Hutchens

Nov 2, 2023, 5:34pm CDT

STILLWATER —  Backed up on his 3-yard line, Oklahoma State quarterback Alan Bowman took a shotgun snap and locked his eyes on receiver Leon Johnson III.

Johnson lept and stretched his 6-foot-5 frame to haul in a back-shoulder pass for a 43-yard gain on the second play of the fourth quarter, extinguishing all hope of a Cincinnati comeback. 

In his first OSU start, Johnson led the Cowboys with 149 yards receiving on five catches and 11 targets. If his performance against Cincinnati last week is any indication, Johnson is emerging as a threat for a thin Cowboys receiving corps.

And for that, OSU can thank a Division III Christian school 25 miles southwest of Portland, a distant connection in a coaching tree and the eBay of college athletics — the transfer portal.

George Fox University is a private school in Newberg, Oregon with about 4,000 students. It is where Johnson played three seasons before transferring to OSU.  When four prominent receivers entered the portal at the end of last season, OSU’s coaches went looking for replacements. 

Fortunately for Johnson and the Cowboys, they had a George Fox connection.

Brayden Kearsley was a graduate assistant offensive line coach at OSU last season. He just happened to play high school football for Chris Casey, the head coach at George Fox.

“The story I heard is that Brayden was in the office and they were going through transfer portal guys and they came across Leon Johnson,” George Fox offensive coordinator Ken Ingram said. “The coach was looking and said ‘George Fox University, where the heck is that?’ and Brayden goes, ‘I know the head coach there.’” 

Kearsley, now a BYU assistant, vouched for George Fox. The tape from Johnson’s junior season, when he totaled 1,157 receiving yards and 14 touchdowns in 10 games and was named an NCAA Division III first-team All-American, vouched for itself. 

Johnson played high school football and baseball in Bothell, Washington. Ingram said Johnson was overlooked because he wasn’t even the leading receiver on his high school team. Johnson chose George Fox for its strong academics and because he also wanted to play baseball. His breakout junior season sent his life in a different direction. 

Johnson said he thought he’d play his senior season at George Fox and be done with football. 

“I got a math degree,” Johnson said. “I was like, ‘I’m going to get my Master’s in teaching and go start teaching high school.’”

When the Bruins returned to Newberg from their 2022 season finale, scouts from the Miami Dolphins were waiting for Johnson. He put his teaching plans on hold.

The scouts presented Johnson with several scenarios. He could sit his senior year out and try to latch on at a college pro day, he could play a final year of baseball, he could sign with an agent and enter the draft or he could enter the transfer portal. 

Johnson entered the portal. OSU was the first team to contact him.

“I met with the coaches and it felt like home,” Johnson said. “While Oklahoma and Washington are completely different, it felt like home with the coaches.”

OSU senior receiver Brennan Presley said in practice Johnson showed signs he could compete in the Big 12. 

“They believed in me more than I believed in myself,” Johnson said of his OSU teammates.

Johnson credited OSU offensive coordinator Kasey Dunn with improving his fundamentals and route-running. Johnson said he is unable to win battles based on size alone anymore. After the Cincinnati game, Dunn walked over to where Johnson sat for a postgame interview and gave him a noogie on the head, a testament, Johnson said, to how close he is to “Papa Dunn.”

Johnson played 26 snaps in OSU’s first two games and was headed for a redshirt year. That plan changed two weeks ago when the already-thin receiving corp lost Talyn Shettron and Jaden Bray to injury.

After Johnson played the entire game against Cincinnati game, OSU coach Mike Gundy said he couldn’t imagine redshirting him.

“He has shown signs in practice of performing at a high level,” Gundy said. “Practice is one thing games are another…until we get a young man on the field in a game we never know what they can do. He came in and did something we didn’t know we could do in a conference game.”

 

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Ben Hutchens and his twin brother Sam cover Oklahoma State for the Sellout Crowd. After a decade of living in the state, Ben finally feels justified in calling himself an Oklahoman. You can reach him at [email protected] and continue the dialogue @Ben_ Hutchens_ on social media.

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