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INDIANAPOLIS — Of all of the six Pitt players invited to the NFL Combine this week at the Indiana Convention Center, the one that might make the most noise is probably also the quietest.
Nearly everyone is familiar with the story of running back James Conner, who overcame a season-ending knee injury and a bout with Hodgkin lymphoma before rattling off his second career 1,000-yard season.
Quarterback Nathan Peterman has had his stock make a meteoric rise with an impressive season in his first as a full-time starter, which he followed up with a break-out showing in the Senior Bowl.
But it’s offensive guard Dorian Johnson that looks to be in line to take home the highest draft honors. Johnson was a three-year starter at left guard for the Panthers and the Belle Vernon native was one of the most reliable members of an offensive line that was twice nominated for the Joe Moore Award.
Most players can point to a significant amount of personal growth during four years at college, and Johnson is no exception to that. Even though he was a five-star recruit, the decision was made late in his freshman year to move inside to guard, where he’s thrived ever since.
“My freshman year, I came in, didn’t play until the second game,” he said. “I didn’t get many reps and my redshirt was burned at that point. I wanted to get on the field, I wanted to play and I wanted to contribute in any way possible.”
After consulting with then-offensive line coach Jim Hueber, Johnson made the switch to guard in order to get more playing time. Four years later, he’s poised to be one of the highest-drafted players at his position. Sports Illustrated has rated him as the second-best guard in this class, which puts his likely draft spot somewhere between the end of the first round and the middle of the third.
Where he’s going to get taken — and by which team — isn’t something that Johnson is spending a lot of time worrying about right now as he works out with fellow Pitt offensive lineman Adam Bisnowaty in California.
“I feel like nobody really knows at this point,” Johnson said. “Anything that’’s out at this point, I feel like it’s just talk. Whenever draft day comes, wherever I get drafted, I’m going to be happy.”
Bisnowaty says that the reason Johnson has excelled so much at guard despite being slender for the position is his explosiveness and that it comes from plain and simple hard work.
“He can move,” Bisnowaty said of Johnson’s athleticism. “If he’ll let you, ask him to lift his shirt up, because he’s got a six-pack under there.”
“No comment on that one,” Johnson politely declined, but did say that he’s down to 300 pounds after playing most of last season at 315. Six-pack or no, that’s an impressive physique for a 6-foot-5 athlete.
“That was just something I did on my own.” he added. “I feel comfortable at 300 or 305. I really started lifting in high school. Our head coach at the time, Aaron Krepps, really pushed us to go hard in the weight room and get extra reps.”
Johnson did 21 reps in the 225-pound bench press at the combine — a number he feels strongly that he can improve upon at Pitt’s senior day. There’s another area he’s already realized some improvement upon: interviews. Johnson has nine scheduled for Thursday night and will probably end up talking to nearly half of the NFL by the time the weekend is over. That’s a lot of selling himself to do for a man that came into Pitt as a shy introvert.
“I didn’t do too many actual interviews when I was in high school,” he said. “I’ve gotten used to it over the years [at Pitt]. I’m actually a lot more comfortable talking to people. … It’s an honor that so many want to talk to me.”