Keyshawn Johnson has been compared to Jerry Rice and Michael Irvin, which is high praise for a wide receiver who has yet to catch a pass in the NFL.
Johnson welcomes the comparison, and invites the expectations that precede him in today's NFL draft. If, as expected, the New York Jets choose the USC star as the top pick, he will be the first wide-out taken No. 1 since Irving Fryar led off the 1984 draft.
The Baltimore Ravens, who have the fourth pick, count a running back, a linebacker, a defensive end and a tight end among their primary needs. But Ravens owner Art Modell said the team would grab Johnson if he were unexpectedly available.
Since he capped off two great seasons at USC with a sensational 12-catch, 216-yard performance in the Trojans' Rose Bowl victory over Northwestern three months ago, Johnson has been perched atop a draft field deep in talented receivers like Ohio State's Terry Glenn and Marvin Harrison of Syracuse.
At 6 feet 3, 215 pounds, with excellent hands, speed and leaping ability, Johnson looks like an NFL star waiting to happen.
He sure acts like one. Johnson's bright smile, bubbly demeanor and overall charm are as well known as the hands that will make him millions. So is his gift for gab and self-promotion, whether it's in the face of an opposing cornerback or in the boardroom.
He already has signed a shoe contract, agreeing to an endorsement deal with Adidas three days ago. He also is talking with a toy company that may produce a football bearing his name. Before visiting the Jets this month, Johnson eyed New York as the perfect stage on which to showcase his talent. Before he begins to prove himself at the highest level, Johnson stands alone among rookies as the consummate salesman.
"He has tremendous self-confidence. That's an understatement," said Larry McDuff, who, as the defensive coordinator at the University of Arizona failed twice to contain Johnson in losses to USC. "He's one of the few people I've seen who can back up whatever he says."
"I don't talk too much. My performance speaks for itself," Johnson said. "You have to let an individual be an individual. You can't fix something that's not broken. You can't turn someone into something they're not."
Johnson has drawn high marks for turning away from what he could have become.
As a youngster, he lived in the shadow of the Los Angeles Coliseum, where he avoided a rough neighborhood by shagging balls at USC practices and rubbing elbows with stars like Marcus Allen and Ronnie Lott. By his early teen-age years, trouble beckoned, and Johnson followed its call.
Johnson admits to being affiliated with a gang from age 13 to 15, when he sold drugs and made hundreds of dollars per day. He spent nine months in a California youth facility after being arrested for possession of marijuana, cocaine and a concealed handgun. After learning one lesson, he still ignored his studies too much. Despite developing as a hotly recruited star at South ** Central's Dorsey High, low SAT scores ruined Johnson's football scholarship at Miami.
He ended up at West Los Angeles Community College, where he abruptly quit midway through the season, and later was told by his coach to take another year off to grow up. The next year Johnson returned as one of junior college football's more flamboyant talents. After returning a kickoff 90 yards for a score, Johnson ran out of the end zone to a refreshment stand to grab a cold drink.
In 1994, his priorities straight, Johnson came home again to USC. He will graduate May 11 after setting a single-season, Pac-10 record with 90 receptions as a senior.
"Adolescents are going to be adolescents," Johnson said. "Everybody has problems as a child. It's nothing I'm ashamed of. It's not embarrassing to me. If that is a concern [to others], so be it. I'd rather look forward to the future."
Johnson is smart enough to speak three languages -- he also knows Spanish and Portuguese. But is he too brash? Will his ego, not to mention the NFL cornerbacks who will not show the respect and provide the mismatches he enjoyed in the Pac-10, prove to be his undoing?
Ravens receivers coach Mike Sheppard does not think so. Sheppard flew out to meet Johnson last week, mainly to see for himself just how cocky the draft's premier receiver really is.
"What I found was a young man who grew up in the inner city, did what lots of inner city kids do, found his way out through athletics, had great direction from his mom, and focused on what was important," Sheppard said. "He's playful. He's genuine. He's got a burning desire to be good. I love his work ethic. He blocks. He finishes plays. He plays hard. And he told me that when he walks off the field, he's no better than anyone else."
If the Jets or anyone else pass on Johnson, it might be because of his perceived arrogance. Even Jets personnel director Dick Haley said recently that Johnson talks too much.
But plenty of teams wish they could get a guy with his size, speed and productivity.
Johnson's signature effort came in his final collegiate game. In the Rose Bowl, every one of his 12 catches was good for a first down, and Johnson went up high in traffic to fight for many of them.
"There are about four or five guys in the draft who don't have any holes. Keyshawn Johnson is one of them," Houston Oilers general manager Floyd Reese said.
The Johnson file
Name: Keyshawn Johnson
Position: Wide receiver
Size: 6 feet 3, 215 pounds
Hometown: Los Angeles
Career statistics: In two years at USC, caught 168 passes for 2,796 yards (16.6-yard average) and 16 TDs. Saved his best stuff for the biggest games. As a junior in 1994, scored nine TDs and averaged 20.6 yards per catch.
1995 season: Set a Pac-10 record by catching 90 passes during the regular season. Caught 12 passes for 216 yards in the Rose Bowl to finish the year with 102 receptions for 1,434 yards and seven TDs.
Pub Date: 4/20/96