Underrated no longer: Montrell Johnson showing he belongs in SEC with solid spring at UF

Graham Hall
Gator Sports

After a freshman season that many desire yet few experience, Montrell Johnson made the difficult decision to leave Louisiana — though he insists he didn’t initially intend to follow his coach in 2021, Billy Napier, to the Florida football program

“I was still focusing on our bowl game and trying to win that. I was focused on ending the season right,” Johnson recalled. “After the season, I didn’t really think about it as much.”

With his first spring at Florida in the books, Johnson has set the record straight on his arrival in Gainesville with Napier: they weren’t a package deal in any sense. 

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Montrell Johnson: 'I knew I could play at a higher level'

During his freshman season, he rushed for 838 yards along with 12 rushing touchdowns and was named the Sun Belt Freshman of the Year, but Johnson already was focused on tougher competition. 

“I knew that I could play at a higher level,” he said. “I knew that Florida could be one of those places I could be at.” 

Not that his freshman season altered his thinking in any way. He may have had a three-star designation as a prospect by 247Sports coming out of De La Salle in New Orleans, but Johnson didn’t think of himself as a middle-of-the-pack player. His perception of his ability didn’t lead to a wave of offers from Southeastern Conference programs, however, with only Tennessee and Vanderbilt extending scholarship offers.

Nearby LSU didn’t think he had what it took to compete weekly against the nation’s best collegiate talent. 

“It was a huge chip on my shoulder. I felt like I was very under-recruited in high school,” Johnson said. “I wanted to come in and show what I can do.” 

Johnson impressed almost immediately with his maturity, despite his second-year status, as well as his knowledge of the offensive system Napier planned to install at Florida.

“Montrell’s extremely bright, picks things up quickly,” Napier said. “He’s certainly going to provide depth and production for our team.”

With Nay’Quan Wright out for much of spring due to an ankle injury, along with UF’s need for replacements for Malik Davis and Dameon Pierce from last season’s team, the Gators looked to the trio of Demarkcus Bowman, Lorenzo Lingard and Johnson in the initial stages of Napier’s first offseason with the program. 

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Johnson’s familiarity with the terminology meant he was able to help accelerate the learning process for his teammates. 

“I help all those guys out trying to learn the playbook. It’s a new playbook for them. I try to help all of them out to learn it to the best of their ability,” he said. “I just try to help those guys try to learn it and get on the field as fast as possible.”

It wasn’t all familiar for Johnson. He was experiencing many unknowns, from the university and the community to his teammates, most of whom had bonded during last season’s 6-7 finish. And the level of competition was, in theory, higher — Johnson could have been slow to adapt, but that ultimately wasn’t the case.

After all, he never felt as if he couldn’t play in the league — it was the majority of programs recruiting him that didn’t think Johnson could excel in the SEC.

“When I first got here, everything really felt the same. Football is football to me. I felt comfortable when I first got out here. Once I got that confidence, I felt good,” Johnson said. “Like I said, I was a very under-recruited guy. I feel like I can play with those guys. I’m gonna say it felt the same as the Sun Belt. It’s a difference but I felt very comfortable out there. Very confident. I’m gonna keep grinding and getting better.” 

Florida running back Montrell Johnson (2) leaps for a first down during the first half during the April 14 Orange and Blue Spring Game at Steve Spurrier Field at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville.

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Johnson’s yet to take the field for Florida in a contest that counts in the win-loss column, but he already has given fans reason to believe he’s made for nights in the SEC. He led all rushers in the Orange and Blue game, registering 13 carries for 55 yards, an average of 4.2 yards a carry, while being the only UF running back to find the end zone. 

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Johnson’s far from satisfied with standing out in the end-of-spring scrimmage. When the Gators next return to Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, he plans to further enforce the notion that he’s cut out for the SEC. 

“It was a great experience. It was good to be out there with fans, in that atmosphere. It’s something new for me. I really enjoyed it,” Johnson said of his Orange and Blue game debut.  "All the older guys told me it's gonna be crazy, you're not even going to hear yourself talk. Like, they said it's going to be about 90,000, I believe. I just want to experience that now. I'm ready."