Dorian Johnson hopes to etch his name among Cardinals greats
TEMPE, Ariz. — When Dorian Johnson took his first official visit to the University of Pittsburgh during his junior year at Belle Vernon Area High School, he toured the program’s practice facility that Pitt shares with the NFL’s Steelers.
To get to the locker rooms at Pitt, you have to walk down a long hallway, past a display on the left side that honors the school’s first-team All-Americans. That display features Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald, but it also features a litany of offensive line greats from Pitt’s past, including Mark May, Jimbo Covert, Bill Fralic, Mark Stepnoski and Ruben Brown.
Johnson walked past that display every day for four years, marveling at the names, but he also noticed a gap that he hoped to fill.
“When I was getting recruited, the O-line coach at the time was Jim Hueber,” Johnson said. “He told me there was a need for offensive linemen. It had been a while since we put a guy up on that wall. We had a lot of guys that were converted from D-tackles, tight ends, stuff like that.”
The Panthers wanted to redshirt Johnson, but the need for starters on the patchwork line was so great that he jumped into the lineup at tackle in the eighth game of his freshman season. His first assignment: Georgia Tech All-American Jeremiah Attaochu, now an outside linebacker with the San Diego Chargers.
“Attaochu gave him an education that night,” Pitt Executive Associate Athletic Director/Media Relations, EJ Borghetti said. “It was basically trial by fire and it served him well. He never looked back from that.”
Johnson went on to become a three-year starter and a first-team All-American his senior year. Now he hopes to do what those Pitt legends before him did at the NFL level, after the Cardinals drafted him in the fourth round with the 115th overall selection.
“Even for people to put me somewhat on that level with those names means a lot to me,” he said.
The Cardinals believe they selected the best interior offensive lineman in the draft, a 6-feet-5-inch, 300-pound specimen that some scouts and draft services projected as a low first-round to high second-round pick.
“We really thought that there would be no chance that he’d be where we were picking in the fourth,” Cardinals GM Steve Keim said. “We were fortunate.”
Johnson may not have fallen so far if a recent medical check-up hadn’t revealed a health condition related to his liver, known as primary sclerosing cholangitis. Johnson has known about the condition for years and takes medication twice a day to manage it, while foregoing alcohol and medications like Tylenol.
“I didn’t anticipate it being as big of a deal as it is,” he said. “It won’t affect me on a daily basis at all.”
The Cardinals think Johnson could be a plug-and-play addition at right guard, which would allow 2016 draft pick Evan Boehm to move back to his natural position at center. Johnson played the right side all of his life, until his sophomore season at Pitt. He’s trying to regain the muscle memory and technique.
“Like anything, if you haven’t played it in a while you have to work on it so I’ve actually been staying after practice, or coming before practice just working on my sits, just my fits out of a right-handed stance, just getting back in the groove for it,” he said. “From what I’ve heard, recovery is the biggest thing you can do to play at a high level in the NFL. If you’re not fully recovered you can’t come out and compete against these guys. They’re different animals, playing at the top of their game.”
Time will tell if Johnson can make that quick adjustment. In the meantime, he is also adjusting to the Arizona heat and looking forward to working with Fitzgerald next week when OTAs begin.
Johnson has something from his Pitt days that Fitzgerald never achieved, but he has no intention of ever bringing it up.
In addition to the All-American display, Pitt honors its greatest seniors in a highly visible manner. In the heart of campus, between the Cathedral of Learning and Heinz Chapel, is a sidewalk known as the Varsity Walk. There, embedded in the stones, are the names of former Pitt athletes who have promoted the university through their athletic or academic achievements.
Fitzgerald’s name was never added to the walk because he left Pitt after his sophomore season to enter the NFL.
“They had a banquet maybe three weeks ago and I didn’t find out until that night that I was being honored,” Johnson said. “They actually put my name in, engraved it, so I got to see it.
“It’s a huge sidewalk. Whenever you come on your official visits they take you on the walkway and a lot of people walk past it. I wanted to leave a legacy at Pitt; have my name remembered so it’s pretty cool.”