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Freshman defensive back Josh Johnson of Penn sprint football during the game against Cornell on Sept. 22. Credit: Chenyao Liu

Josh Johnson, a freshman defensive back from The Woodlands, Texas, has been making waves in the world of sprint football at Penn. With a passion for the game and a bright future ahead, The Daily Pennsylvanian sat down with Johnson to learn more about his journey, his experiences, and his aspirations.

1. Can you share a bit of your journey from Woodlands Christian Academy to the sprint football team at Penn? Was there a recruiting process? Did you switch from regular football to sprint football?

In high school, I played football all four years. Around my junior year, I started talking to colleges and got in touch with UPenn's main football team. After I attended [development] camp, my dad connected with the coaches again. An email from us was forwarded to coach Jerry [McConnell], the sprint football head coach. This started my recruiting journey with the sprint football team. I visited, spent time with the team, and got to know the coach.

2. Why did you choose football? When did you realize it was the sport you wanted to do, going into college?

It started young for me: when I was about three or four years old, I started playing flag football and I still play on a team that I'll go and travel around the country with. But fifth grade is when I first started playing tackle football and I always knew [that] I could use football to get me into a prestigious school. It's not something I have to be doing, but it's something that I love and it's great to spend time with the guys every day. So I knew from a very young age that if I could play at a prestigious school in college, I would do that 100%.

3. How have your track and field achievements influenced your football skills?

So, playing or running track and field throughout high school, I was short distance and then [doing] all the jumps has helped my speed and agility on the football field. It's also improved my vertical jump. So it's correlated a little bit, but [while] track and football have different dynamics, both demand explosiveness.

4. How do you plan to continue your development as a football player in the coming years?

Training with the team in the off-season is going to be a big priority this year. Then also for me every summer or whenever I go back home, I train with Rischad Whitfield, the footwork king, and he helps me critique my technique whenever it comes to running or running routes and then playing [defensive back] as well. So working with trainers is a big thing but also with my teammates in the off-season.

5. Are there any specific games or matchups you're looking forward to in the remainder of this season?

The one I'm looking forward to the most is the Chestnut Hill game. We lost to them the first time we played them, but we've grown a lot since then and just can't wait to get back at them and hopefully show them how much we've improved and come out with a win.

6. How have the coaching staff or teammates here influenced you and helped you develop as a player?

The coaching staff has developed me a lot just because I didn't start playing defensive back until my senior year of high school. So I've had to learn a lot from the defensive backs coach here, which has helped me significantly, and then offensive-wise, I'm learning new plays and stuff every single day and that just helps me grow as a person. McConnell always talks about grit and always fighting and always wanting to win. So that's something that I think, coming from Texas where football is huge, it's good to hear and something that reminds me of home. 

7. In your opinion, what are the key differences between high school football and college football in terms of the gameplay and the preparation?

The key difference is that no matter what level you play on in college, is that whether it's for football or a big team, it's faster anywhere you play. There's a reason why a very low percentage of high school athletes play in college, because it's a whole other level that just takes so much more commitment and time. 

8. As a freshman at Penn, what are your initial impressions of collegiate-level football and academics?

I would say that the academics are far harder than high school and I think obviously it's an Ivy League and it sets itself apart from other schools as well as other collegiate schools, and football-wise, I feel like football here is just like anywhere else. Sprint doesn't have the same hype as regular football, we don't have the big 400-pound lineman or whatever but we're still playing football in the same sport everyone else plays; we're hidden and we're all working hard every day of the week so it's the same thing for me.

9. What are your hobbies and interests outside of sports and academics?

I'm part of the Wharton Undergraduate Sports Business Club and the Wharton Undergraduate Finance Club. In the sports business club, I play a significant role in the finance team and I'm learning what to do because I'm brand new to all this being a freshman, but some of the upperclassmen on the football team have helped me learn. I also love hanging out with friends in my free time, working out, and keeping up with my studies. Something that I'm gonna try to pick up is guitar, but that's just a fun thing.

10. What are your long-term goals in both football and your academic pursuits at Wharton?

I hope our sprint football team wins a championship during my time [on the team]. At Wharton, I aim to concentrate on finance and maybe economics, with aspirations in investment banking or wealth management for athletes, which would be something I would love to go into just to help new athletes with NFL deals and generally manage their finances.

11. Are there any NFL players or other college athletes who you admire?

For the longest time, I used to play quarterback a lot and for the longest time, I looked up to Drew Brees and Peyton Manning. Drew is more just because I'm more built like him: I'd always been on the shorter side and been more accurate with throwing the ball, and then Peyton Manning, just because I think he's a great leader.

12. Have you got any personal goals for this season, both on and off the field?

[For] some of my goals on the field, I would say I'm more team-oriented, so I like to focus on obviously winning as many games as we can. And if we win these next two games, we have the opportunity to play for a championship and that would be an awesome goal for this year. Personal stats are always a good goal, but not necessarily the most important one. Off the field, balancing the demands of a top-tier college and a D1 sport is a challenge but something that I'm getting better at every day.

13. Are there any specific aspects or skills of the game that you're actively working on improving?

Definitely, for me, I sometimes overthink the play that is about to happen [and] my man coverage isn't necessarily the best. So I'm working on more of my man coverage rather than my zone just because I can keep up with people speed-wise, but I like zone because I can just look and see the quarterback. I just have to realize that I can't do that and got to stick with my guy. So I'd say that and then also it's weird for everyone but moving backwards as a DB, you're moving backwards constantly. So you have to practically learn how to run backwards and keep up with someone running full steam ahead. So, all those, I'll just be constantly working on.

14. How do you handle the pressure of being a student-athlete, especially in a competitive academic environment like The Wharton School?

It's something I'm still figuring out. Time management is the biggest thing, just either constantly working on homework or as soon as I get done with class, finding a quiet place to work. Just constantly trying to find times where I can fit in time to study, but then also having that balance of either hanging out with friends or like just talking to someone. So it's just time management is the biggest challenge I would say.

15. Finally, what legacy do you hope to leave as a football player and a student?

The kind of legacy that I want to leave is just everyone knows me as a team player that you can call up for anything, someone who's always there to help you be the best you can be. Football-wise, I'd love to be part of a championship team one day and be someone who was the hardest worker on the field whenever he got there and then off the field as well, whether it be in the classroom or the weight room, and so, yeah, it's a legacy I would love to leave behind.