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Norwich's Johnson excelling at Louisiana Tech

Ruston is a fairly small, quaint city in northern Louisiana, known for its Peach Festival and being the home of Louisiana Tech University.

It's just the kind of place where former Norwich Free Academy two-sport standout Jawaun Johnson knew he could focus on football and academics.

It is the latest stop in Johnson's college football journey that started in the junior college ranks, first at Hutchinson Community College in Kansas and then Fullerton College in California, and now to Division I Louisiana Tech of Conference USA.

"It's just a quiet environment," said Johnson last week when asked about why he chose Tech. "It's a place that I could just focus on my grades and just get better at football and produce as a player and as a person.

"It's a small school, so there's not much to do. The town is very small. You can just be focused on what you need to be focused on."

Johnson, whose hometown of Norwich is bigger population-wise than Ruston by roughly 17,000, is in his second season with the Bulldogs. He played two games last year before going the redshirt route.

A 5-foot-11, 192-pound junior, Johnson has worked his way into the regular receiver rotation this fall. He has 14 receptions for 163 yards and scored two touchdowns while appearing in all seven games.

Before embarking on his college journey, Johnson left his mark at NFA, where he was a state champion sprinter and explosive two-way football star.

He won the 100 and 200 at the Class LL outdoor track meet and placed second in New England in the 100 in 2015. The all-state selection's highlights include running for 295 yards and three touchdowns and adding a fourth score on a 90-yard reception in an upset of Staples during his senior season. He was named The Day's All-Area Athlete of the Year in track (2015) and football (2016).

"It feels like a long time ago," Johnson said. "I feel old."

While he had visions of playing Division I college football, he knew he had work to do in the classroom first, so he headed to Hutchinson.

"Honestly, I wanted to get my grades before," Johnson said. "That was my biggest issue in high school. So I wanted to go focus on my grades and then obviously go to the next level. And that happened to be LA Tech."

At Hutchinson, Johnson played in nine games, finishing with 12 catches for 339 yards and two touchdowns. But he decided to leave after one season for Fullerton College to join his cousin, Peter Kazibwe, a Bacon Academy graduate who played linebacker there.

Johnson ended up earning Southern California Football Association's National Central Conference first team honors on offense, finishing with 37 receptions for 585 yards and four touchdowns in eight games.

His play caught the attention of Louisiana Tech offensive coordinator Joe Sloan, who convinced Johnson to come to Ruston.

It's been an adjustment for Johnson playing on the Division I level. He needs more than his blazing speed to be a consistent contributor.

Johnson used his redshirt season last year to work on his game.

"It gave me the time to get better at what I needed to get better at, learn the offense and just produce and get bigger and get faster," Johnson said. "I think it was a good year for me to excel and work on everything that I needed to work on."

Entering this fall, Johnson's goal was to become a bigger part of the offense and a reliable playmaker.

He's done just that.

In a 37-34 double overtime win over Alabama-Birmingham on Oct. 31, Johnson enjoyed his best game as a Bulldog. He had career highs for catches (six) and yards (73). He caught a 30-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter that handed his team a 31-24 edge.

His breakout performance boosted his confidence.

"When my number was called, I just tried to do what I can do to help the team and we came away with the win," Johnson said. "That was good just not playing a lot before and coming in and helping to contribute.

"As a player, when you excel, the next week you're hoping that you can do it again."

LA Tech hasn't played since then, with its last four games either canceled or postponed for COVID-19 related reasons.

The Bulldogs stand at 4-3 overall, 3-2 in CUSA. They're led by former UConn coach Skip Holtz.

They have one game left, visiting North Texas on Thursday in Denton.

"We're just trying to get a game in," Johnson said. "Man, it's rough, this COVID-19 stuff. We've just been getting better over the weeks, practicing as a team. ... We haven't played our best yet."

So how has Johnson improved this season?

"I'm better on the field with awareness," Johnson said. "I'm starting to learn things faster. I'm starting to pick things up more and more."

Ruston will be Johnson's college home for a while longer. He has two more years of eligibility left.

He still keeps in touch with his former NFA teammates. He says Jemal Davis, his coach at NFA, put him in a good position to help him get to this level.

He hopes to expand his role next season, adding kick returning duties. He had one kickoff return this year, gaining 25 yards.

"I'm not done yet," Johnson said. "I'm trying to accomplish more. Better things are coming my way. ... Hopefully, next year, we get to have a lot more games and I get to showcase my talent at different positions."

He's already closing on accomplishing one of his goals that he set before arriving at LA Tech, and that's earning his undergraduate degree.

That's also important to his mother, Jessica.

Johnson, as the oldest, wants to set a good example for his two brothers and sister.

"I'm going to be the first one in my family to graduate from college," said Johnson, a sociology major. "I've already got my associate degree. She's just really proud of me and she just wants me to keep going."

g.keefe@theday.com

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