Written By Oliver Hodgkinson

Missouri State DT Eric Johnson hopes to pave a way for small-school players following his ascension as an NFL Draft prospect.

Eric Johnson is walking a path that has barely been trodden. Just seven Missouri State Bears have been selected in the NFL’s annual selection event. A rapidly ascending prospect in the 2022 NFL Draft, Johnson is set to become the program’s first-ever defensive draftee. As he negotiates unfamiliar territory, he hopes to create a path for future small school players to follow.

Eric Johnson paving the way for small-school NFL Draft prospects

“Of course, I’m doing this for myself, but I’m also doing it for them.” Johnson is talking about how his recent NFL Draft ascension has been received by his Missouri State teammates. “Because the more success I can help bring to my school’s name, the more chance that someone remembers me and takes a look at Missouri State.

“‘Well, we did see this one guy here. Let’s take a second look and see if maybe we can find someone else there.’ That’s giving them an extra opportunity that some other guys that I played with didn’t have. I’m very excited to be able to do that.”

Johnson knows that these opportunities are hard to come by. An under-recruited prospect out of Plainfield, Illinois, Johnson has been with the Missouri State Bears for six years and has been a starter since 2017. He’s been a part of a team that has dealt with failure and with disappointment. Despite helping turn around the fortunes of the program, he’s also been an unknown. Until now.

“It was never something that I expected,” says Johnson of the invite to the NFLPA Bowl that has ignited his NFL Draft stock. “I didn’t think I’d ever get the opportunity to play at a bowl game. It seemed like it was something that was very far off, kind of like a dream. Once that had happened and it became a reality, it was a shock at first. It took me a while to realize that this was happening, that I have the opportunity to perform here, and that if I seize the opportunity, I can really try to make something of it.”

A whirlwind ascension in the 2022 NFL Draft

Despite earning All-Missouri Valley Conferences honors that “helped me know that I was going in the right direction,” Johnson arrived at the NFLPA Bowl with little fanfare and even less media acclaim. However, that soon changed, as the man whose Twitter handle is “The Creature” began to impose his will on opposing offensive linemen during practice in Pasadena.

Football fans in living rooms across the country would soon become acquainted with the Missouri State standout. During the nationally televised game on NFL Network, Johnson continued to be a dominant force, logging a savage sack early in the second quarter. While asserting his will and becoming a sensation for “Twitter scouts,” the ascending defensive tackle earned an invite to the 2022 Reese’s Senior Bowl, an opportunity that resulted in a whirlwind round trip from Pasadena to Chicago and back to Mobile.

“Even while going through that, it still felt like a dream,” Johnson recalls. “I was excited with the whole NFLPA, and I was on a plane back home and thinking about training again and getting ready for pro day. My agent called me as we’re pulling out of the gate and said, ‘Hey, we got you into the Senior Bowl, you gotta get off the plane!’ and I was like, ‘I can’t stop this plane!’

“It was so cool. Just the fact that people kept telling me that I put in so much work and did so well, and your performance bought you this opportunity. That part really stuck. Because of what I did and how I performed and what I put on film, it opened this door for me. It was that image that stuck, that I earned this, I earned being there.”

Johnson earns his opportunity after a long journey

Plainfield is a long way from Mobile, where Johnson likely secured a selection in the 2022 NFL Draft. It’s 900 miles and almost 14 hours down the I-57 S. That distance, that journey, is almost the perfect metaphor for the Missouri State defensive tackle’s journey from pseudo-obscurity to the national spotlight.

As he strives to make that journey easier for others, Johnson talks me through how a quiet, goofy Illinois kid who enjoyed playing video games and admittedly preferred watching anime to football comes to fall in love with the game and overcome the obstacles that being overlooked can put in your path.

Like so many NFL Draft prospects, the journey begins at home. However, unlike the numerous players who grew up on a diet of college football standouts that became NFL heroes on Sunday’s television schedule, Johnson had a different role model. Eric Johnson Sr. didn’t just provide his son with his name, he provided the inspiration for his future.

“My love of football originally comes from my father,” Johnson says. “He played football when he was in college and a little bit afterward. Growing up with him, I wanted to be like him, to mirror him. He’s been my guide throughout my entire life. He’s always coaching me up. Even though I’ve had coaches from other teams, he’s always been the one in my ear to give me tips and set me straight.”

Developing into a productive high school player

Johnson would eventually mirror his father as an all-conference player at the college level, but first, Eric Sr. was a helping hand in molding his son at the high school level. While he earned all-conference honors as a junior at Plainfield, Eric Jr. made a substantial leap in his senior season with a statistically sensational 17 sacks and 29 tackles for loss.

“During my senior season, my dad joined the coaching staff as a part-timer, and he helped out with the D-line,” Johnson explains. “Compared to just visiting him after practice for advice, he was actually at practice, coaching through the drills with the things he had seen in his career. Basically, imparting his knowledge to us. I feel like me listening to that advice, listening to his coaching, helped me make that performance.”

While his father helped develop the technical and mental aspects of his game, Johnson honed his physical ability in some extracurricular sporting activities. A successful wrestler, he finished second at the 2015 IHSA Class 3A state tournament. Meanwhile, he was the top-ranked wrestler in the state heading into his senior season.

“It was supposed to be a supplementary sport to football,” he says. “I had done both wrestling and track. The track was supposed to help with speed and running. The wrestling helped with a lot of body control, leverage, and overall balance and stuff. I had a lot better agility and control over myself compared to a lot of other players, and I felt like that came from wrestling.”