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Player Interview: Tight End Kenny Johnston, Florida Tech
- Updated: April 15, 2017
Kenny Johnston, Tight End, Florida Tech
TSJ Sports had the opportunity to talk with tight end Kenny Johnston from Florida Tech, as he prepares for the 2017 NFL Draft. The Florida Tech Panthers play in the NCAA Division II’s Gulf South Conference. Florida Tech’s inaugural football season was in 2013, Johnston’s freshman year.
The 6 foot ,4 inch tall former wide receiver from Stanton Prep was a walk-on at Florida Institute of Technology. Ultimately, he was not an ideal receiver and converted to tight end in 2015. He is the first Panther to become an AFCA All-American honoree. First-teamer Adam Shaheen was the only other tight end in the nation to receive the honor.
Not only did Johnston lead the team with 36 catches for 777 yards in 2016, he led the conference with an average of 21.58 yards per catch. In his college career, he had a combined 86 catches for 1,746 yards and 17 touchdowns with a long of 88 yards.
Jayson Martin, Offensive Coordinator
Moving Johnston from wide receiver to tight end was about what they wanted to do with their offense.
“It was more or less maybe not what we saw in Kenny necessarily, but what we wanted to do with our offense and the style of tight end we were looking for. Kenny came in as a big receiver, but there were just some guys out there that he was buried behind. We thought he would be a mismatch at the tight end position getting him on linebackers and safeties who weren’t even close to him as far as speed and agility. He would be really athletic at tight end. I obviously thought that he would be really good, but I never thought that he would put up the numbers that he did at the tight end position. It was even more than I expected.”
Johnston played two years as a lighter weight tight end which seemed to be the only turn-off for the scouts that visited and showed interest in him.
“He was playing about 205-215 pounds and those guys are usually walking around at 240-260 pounds. That really seemed to be the only knock against him with the scouts. Once they found out his weight they said he wouldn’t be able to survive at that weight at the next level. That was the thing that Kenny and I talked the most about, after the season was over, if he really wanted a shot then he was going to have to really focus on trying to gain weight and just get stronger in general. I think that’s one thing he’s really concentrated on. He was lucky enough that he graduated in the mid-year so he didn’t have class and studies to worry about this spring semester so he could just focus on himself, on weight gaining and weight training, to where right now he’s at about 230 pounds. Every single scout that came to our pro day and even came to our junior day just the other day, they were impressed with his ability to be able to be 230 pounds and thought well maybe he does have a shot.”
That’s a shot that Martin hopes to see an NFL team give Johnston after all the feedback they have received about him.
“We’ve gotten enough feedback from NFL teams that I definitely think he’ll get into a camp and, like I’ve told every scout or team that has called me about him, if he gets into a camp, it is going to be hard to cut him just because of the kid and the character and the kind of guy I know he is. He’s really coachable, really works hard, and is an intelligent kid. Learning the playbook and what a specific NFL team wants him to do, I don’t think that’s going to be difficult for him. He played on almost all of our special-teams last year. He’s an All-American, our leading receiver, and he ran down on kickoffs and punts and all that type of stuff. I think that’s what’s going to separate him if he gets into a camp and allows him to make a team, his ability to play special-teams.”
Competitor. That is the one word that Martin says has to go along with Johnston’s name. He compared Kenny Johnston to a former player, Gabe Hughes, and said that the intangibles that Johnston possesses are what sets him apart, and in ways makes him better, than Hughes.
“Gabe was straight line fast, but Kenny has the intangibles. His route running, his ability to make big plays, his ability to compete, his ability to learn the playbook, his ability to play special-teams. That’s something a second or third string guy on an NFL team has to do, they have to play special-teams. They have to excel at it and Kenny’s refuse to lose attitude gives him that ability. I definitely think he can make a team.”
While he has played sports most of his life, Johnston did not begin playing football until high school. He played baseball and basketball, but in his sophomore year at Stanton Prep, he fell in love with football and chose to shift his focus to that.
Like every child, playing in the NFL was always a dream, but that dream did not become a goal until his junior year at Florida Institute of Technology. He has chosen to pursue that goal and focus on becoming a bigger, better NFL caliber tight end.
Could you tell us a little about your decision to pursue a career in the NFL?
“You know, it is every little kid’s dream to play in the NFL, but it didn’t really turn from a dream to a goal until about two years ago. I was a walk-on at Florida Tech and then my junior year I ended up getting All-American. After that people started telling me I was kind of fast, I had the size, I was tall, I had to put on a little more weight, but it was possible. So that’s kind of when it became something I really wanted to pursue. I worked hard all after junior year and coming into senior year and that’s when the scouts started coming through during the season. That’s when it became real. I had another All-American year and I had already planned since right after my junior year that right after my senior year, as long as I didn’t bomb in my senior year, I was going to be training right away. I already had my guy and arrangements made so I didn’t have to get a job right out of college and be able to chase this a little bit. So that’s really kind of how it came about.”
When did you actually start playing football?
“I didn’t really start playing football until high school. I’ve played sports all my life, but it was baseball and basketball. I was a good baseball player and played on traveling teams, but my mom didn’t really want me to play football, she didn’t want me to get hurt, you know, she was one of those kinds of moms. I was on the team in eighth grade, but I didn’t play at all so I don’t really count that. You know, I threw the ball around in the backyard with my friends, but never played. It was kind of the same thing in ninth grade, I was on the JV team, but never played. I was on JV again in tenth grade and that’s kind of when I started to break out and make plays both ways, I was scoring touchdowns and making interceptions. I had been playing basketball too, but that’s when I fell in love with football and chose it over basketball and baseball. In eleventh and twelfth grade is when I moved up to varsity. My senior year I had about a thousand yards and ten touchdowns.”
Was there anyone in particular when you were growing up that influenced your athletic life?
“Yeah, my two cousins. One was older that played baseball and that’s kind of what got me into baseball, being a little kid watching him play and I wanted to follow that. Then my other cousin played football at Bolles, which is a real big football high school down here in Florida, and he ended up going on to play tight end as well at Vanderbilt. I would go to his high school games and they were a state championship caliber team so that’s really what made me want to play football.”
With the dream now becoming the goal, is there anyone professionally that you try to model your game after?
“You know, I really like Travis Kelce of the Chiefs. He’s an athletic tight end. I mean, he’s a big dude, he’s a little bigger than me for sure. He’s that athletic tight end that you can flex out and he’s going to run routes and he’s going to catch the ball. I really like him just for his, well he likes to talk smack, I guess you could say he’s got a little swag about him. I’m the same way, I’m going to talk to you and I’m going to tell you I just caught that ball on you. He’s got a little bit of that meanness in him and that’s what I really like about him. You just have to know when to use it and when not to.”
What has your off the field preparation been with the draft and camps coming up?
“We have a trainer here at my school that I’ve been working with. He trained a guy last year, Gabe Hughes, who got with the Dolphins for a while and he trained him pretty well so I was comfortable staying here and training with him. So I’ve been training literally since the season was over, like the next week we started getting after it. Pretty much workouts in the morning, weights, come back in the afternoon and we do our running. Leading up to Pro Day that was a lot of technique, your 40 starts, your shuttle, and a lot of that stuff. Now that Pro Day is over, we’ve switched gears and we’re doing more football drills, agility, conditioning, and stuff like that. Three or four, sometimes four or five, days a week I’m at the field catching balls with one of my quarterbacks whether I just catch a hundred balls or we’re running routes that day or tennis ball drills. So pretty much every day of the week: Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday; Wednesday is a little lighter. We do kind of recovery and stuff like that, and then Saturday mornings we have another workout. Really Sundays are my only day off.”
It seems like you are very focused.
“It has been nice to stay here and, like I said, after my junior season I made sure I would be set up to be here and to workout and to be focused on that so it has been nice to be able to do it and really put myself into it. I’m either working out, eating, or sleeping. I was blessed in the sense that I was able to graduate back in December. I redshirted my first year. The first year I was here was the first year we had a program in school history. So that first year everyone redshirted and all we did was practice. We actually made the playoffs last year, so in four years we made playoffs. It is a very cool thing to have been a part of. That’s kind of one of the reasons that I came here, to be a part of that.”
What other reasons did you have for choosing Florida Tech?
“I knew I wanted to stay in Florida. I’m a Florida boy. I surf, I love the beach, I love the weather. I went and played in an All-Star game up in Minnesota a couple months ago. That’s brutal! That’s crazy, the people that live up there. I knew I wanted to stay around here. I had been talking to Florida Atlantic my junior year and then their coaches switched after that so that just kind of fell off. So after my senior year, like I said, I had a thousand yards and ten touchdowns so I thought something would fall in my lap. It just didn’t happen. It was crazy to me, but that’s just the name of the game. It was probably February of my senior year and I still don’t know what I’m doing. Signing day had passed and I started hearing about a school that I had never heard of before. You know, we used to come down here, to Melbourne, on surf trips on spring break; me, my cousin, and my uncle. We would camp out and surf so I knew the area, but never heard of this school. I heard about the school and I heard that they were starting a program. It is a really good school academically. I got here and I met the coaches and some of the other players and just kind of fell in love. The coaches are all young and they were just real good people.”
Do you now see yourself as a role model to kids?
“Yeah, I definitely think I kind of have that story. My roommate asked me if two years ago I thought I would be here and I said no, probably not. Going from a kid that didn’t play football until late, being a walk-on, then all the way to All-American, it is definitely a good story for younger kids to see if you want something, go get it. That’s kind of something I always say, if you want something, go get it, go make it happen. Plenty have people have told me no along the way. Plenty of people told me I would never play. Even my coaches here the first two years thought I would never play here.”
So you’ve really shocked everybody.
“Yeah, definitely. I had a coach in high school that was really one of the first people to truly believe in me so we would have talks, he would give me these little pep talks that would really help my confidence. To this day, I look back on those talks. I remember sitting in his office one time and we were talking with my mom, we were looking at colleges and stuff, and my mom said then after that maybe the NFL. He just kind of laughed and said there’s just no way. And that’s the one who believed in me the most. People will tell me that it is crazy and when I agree with them, they think I’m being cocky. I’m not. It still blows my mind.”
What do you consider to be your biggest strengths? Weaknesses?
“I just think that I have a drive, I have a want to. I was a smaller tight end, but I got in there and I blocked. I bury my face and I’m going to give it all I’ve got. I played special-teams, I ran down on kickoff every game, even this last year I ran down on kickoff, I did kick return. I was always begging my special-teams coach to put me on punt and punt return, but he thought it was too much with how much I played on offense. It is a go get it type of mindset. I also think my route running, I think I run very good routes, and I think my speed. I didn’t run a very good forty at Pro Day, but I think my speed is deceptive, especially because I’ve got a stride, and once I’m going, I’m gone.Over the last two years, I’ve got probably seven or eight 60, 70, 80 yard touchdowns. So I’ve got speed. It just kind of deceives people at times because once I’m going, I’m gone before they realize it and it is too late. As for weakness, like I said, I was a little small. I’m up to 233 pounds right now so I’ve definitely put on weight, but my junior year I only weighed about 205. Last year, I wasn’t even 215 honestly and by the end of the season I was more like 212, 210. That’s definitely been kind of a glaring thing when teams would come talk to me. They would tell me I had to be bigger and stronger. It has been nice to be able to just workout and sit around and eat. I eat about four or five meals a day to put on the weight that I’ve needed to. I’ve done it slowly and I’ve done it right. That was definitely probably my biggest weakness.”
What has it been like to join Adam Shaheen as the only other tight end in the nation to receive AFCA All-American honors?
“That’s definitely a great honor. It is awesome to get that. You know, I don’t know much about him. I’ve been reading up on him the last couple months after I saw his name and kind of seen what he’s done over his career. It is crazy that he’s leaving early. That just kind of shows how good he is, he’s got such a big frame and obviously he’s got all the stats. To be put up there with him and to be the only two in the country, it is definitely an honor.”
If you could sit down with all 32 organizations in the NFL and tell them why they need you, why they should want you, what would your message be?
“The first thing I would say is just give me a chance. Just give me a chance, that’s all I need. You get me into a little rookie mini camp and I’m going to impress you. I have a drive. I’m a guy that’s going to bust my ass to just be the best that I can be. I’m going to bring something to the table. I’m not just going to talk it, I’m going to walk it. If I can just get in there and show my work ethic as well as what I can already do as a player and how coachable I am, I haven’t played football that long, so I think for the next five years my play can progress even more. I don’t think I am anywhere near my top. I’ve been in Division II so I think if you get me in there with NFL players, NFL coaches, NFL nutrition, it is just going to take me to a whole different level.”