When the Missouri Valley Football Conference postponed its fall 2020 season on Aug. 7 and announced its intention to play in the spring, Cade Johnson had three options that would dictate where his football career went next — stay at South Dakota State, enter the transfer portal, or declare for the NFL Draft.
On Aug. 11, Johnson decided to enter the portal and explore his options. Within 24 hours, the wide receiver had 15-20 offers. Throughout the whole re-recruiting process, Johnson said he totaled 25-30 offers with 20 of those being Power 5 programs. If he decided to play one more season of college football, whether it was at SDSU or elsewhere, it wasn’t going to be until the fall of 2021.
Johnson watched the FBS return to action last fall and tuned into many Big Ten games as a Nebraska native. He narrowed his final choice down: either commit to the University of Minnesota or declare for the draft.
On Nov. 10, Johnson bet on himself and announced he is entering the 2021 NFL Draft.
“At the end of the day, I felt confident in my abilities,” Johnson told HERO Sports last week. “I’m more than capable of playing in the NFL. I feel like I’m putting my best foot forward and going with where the chips fall.”
This is the second time Johnson is betting on himself.
The first time was as a high school recruit. The Bellevue West High School standout received scholarship offers from South Dakota and SDSU early in his junior year. He stayed patient on committing, hoping his recruiting process would follow the same path as his older brother C.J., who had early SDSU and North Dakota State offers before several Group of 5 schools offered him. C.J. ended up committing and playing at Wyoming.
Unfortunately for Johnson, his gamble of waiting for more offers didn’t pay off. FBS interest didn’t come for the 5-foot-10 and 165-pound receiver. And USD and SDSU pulled their scholarship offers due to other players committing before him.
With few options, Johnson ended up walking on at SDSU. But things worked out fine from there, to say the least.
He redshirted in 2016. The next season, Johnson earned HERO Sports Freshman All-American honors as he set an SDSU single-season record with 839 kickoff return yards and led the Jackrabbits with 1,166 all-purpose yards. Johnson earned a scholarship after his breakout season concluded.
Then he burst onto the national scene as a top wide receiver in the FCS in 2018. With tight end Dallas Goedert and wide receiver Jake Wieneke graduated and playing professional football, Johnson led SDSU with 67 receptions for 1,332 yards and a single-season school-record 17 touchdown catches. In 2019, he earned All-American honors for the third-straight season after hauling in 72 catches for 1,222 yards and eight touchdowns.
Then the sports world stopped in March of 2020 due to COVID. Spring and summer months filled with uncertainty for FCS players ended when the fall season was pushed to the spring. Nearly 100 FCS players transferred to the FBS during that time.
“It was really tough,” Johnson said on the decision he faced of playing college football for one more year or going pro. “I felt comfortable with the whole NFL route and declaring. But just the offers I was getting and being underrecruited out of high school … you’re talking to some of the top Power 5s in the country. That made it tougher to make a decision. But I’m so grateful for South Dakota State and the opportunity they gave me to play and develop there.”
This time around, Johnson betting on himself looks like it will figuratively and literally pay off. He drew rave reviews at the Senior Bowl in January, which followed up with an invite to the virtual NFL Scouting Combine. His draft stock has risen since declaring and he is viewed as a mid-to-late-round draft pick.
Johnson has been training in California after signing with the agency Athletes First. He returned to SDSU for his March 26 pro day, where 20 scouts representing 17 teams were in attendance to watch him work out. Johnson was able to do his bench press, broad jump, and vertical jump, but his day ended when he tweaked his groin running his first 40-yard dash.
“It was a tough pill to swallow,” Johnson said. “All the work you’re putting in up to that point and not being able to finish something you started. At the end of the day, the film doesn’t lie. I feel more than capable as a football player. I’ve never been huge into testing. Some guys are just freaks and super athletic. I feel like it’s important between the lines, and that’s the most important thing — are you a football player? It’s all about making plays on the field.”
The first film NFL teams watch of an FCS prospect is against FBS opponents. SDSU played Minnesota to start the 2019 season. Johnson caught six passes for 90 yards and had one carry for 25 yards.
Johnson says he’s been in communication with a good number of NFL teams. The draft process is virtual for the second year in a row besides pro days. Johnson has done a lot of Zoom calls with both team management personnel and team physicians and says he’s had some unique instances where he was asked to put the laptop out in front of him and do certain physical tests for the physicians to analyze. Draft prospects also have had to go to nearby hospitals to get blood work, MRIs, or x-rays done to send to teams.
Johnson’s path to the draft has had its obstacles. He got scholarship offers pulled in high school. He got his college senior season pulled. A pulled groin ended his pro day prematurely. But his dream of playing professional football will be accomplished in a few weeks.
“Throughout this whole process, it’s been a dream come true just being able to sit down and talk to all of these NFL teams,” Johnson said. “I’ve been an NFL fan my whole life. It’s just crazy when some of these teams reach out. It makes you realize how far you’ve come and the position you’re in. I’m grateful to be here and to keep putting the work in to have a successful NFL career.”