Karter Johnson never wanted to play defense. When he rose to the high school level at Gahanna Lincoln just outside of Columbus, he wanted to be a quarterback. And the coaching staff told him that he’d serve as the backup, but that wasn’t the case.
As a freshman looking for varsity opportunites, Johnson played as the freshman quarterback and a defensive lineman on the junior varsity team. He would play a couple quarters of freshman quarterback and a couple more of JV defensive end, but he was always splitting time. And after a month, following a game in which he didn’t see the field at quarterback, he came to a realization.
“At that point, I was like, ‘Everybody who is around me, my coaches and all that, they want me to play defense, they think I’m a better defensive guy. I might as well just stick with it.’ I just kind of went with the flow,” Johnson told Pittsburgh Sports Now.
Without the obligation to play quarterback, Johnson moved to JV full time — as a starting defensive end. From his sophomore year at Gahanna Lincoln, spending his sophomore and junior seasons at his original school before transferring to Pickerington Central for his senior season, he excelled as a defensive end. In fact, his first offer came from Kentucky — as a defensive lineman.
“I was like, ‘Well, I guess defense is just it,'” Johnson said.
As a senior at Pickerington Central, his lone season at Pickerington, he played a bit of tight end. But it was really just filling a role when needed. If Pickerington needed a tigth end, he’d line up on offense. Johnson was good at it, but he emerged as one of the to top defensive linemen in the class.
A four-star recruit in the class of 2019, ranked as the 26th defensive tackle and the 11th recruit from Ohio, Johnson was one of the crown jewels of TCU’s 2019 recruiting class. As the fourth-highest ranked recruit — second-highest defensive lineman — in the class, he was expected to fill a void.
However, he wasn’t really a fit at TCU. “Well, here’s the truth: I never wanted to play defense.”
“While I was at TCU, it came down to the mind game,” Johnson said. “My mental, it really shot down, so I tried to think of a way out. Not a way out, but a way to continue to play football but not really offend anyone.”
Johnson didn’t play a down at TCU as a true freshman, despite his highly-regarded status. He didn’t feel right, mentally or physically. He went to the TCU coaching staff about making the switch to playing offense, but it neve resulted in anything. He lost 25 pounds during his freshman season, the pounds dropping like flies, and as the pounds melted away, he believed in himself more and more — at tight end.
Johnson ended up leaving TCU after his freshman season. He wanted to continue playing college football, but he didn’t want to be a defender. He hit up schools, asking if they were looking for additions on offense — specifically at tight end — but it wasn’t exactly productive. Every school he reached out to wanted him as a defensive lineman.
In fact, before Pitt, Johnson said the only school that he’s ever wanted him to play tight end was Butler Community College. Butler was the one school — the only school — that saw his potential. And in moving to the JUCO level, it was a fresh start altogether.
As a freshman in 2020, playing just four games, he caught eight passes for 81 yards and a touchdown. As a sophomore in 2021, he caught 15 balls for 212 yards and three touchdowns. However, despite the chance to grow as a tight end at Butler, looking to spend two seasons at Butler to grow, his first touchdown truly signified his growth.
Despite a loss to Garden City during the spring session of games caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Johnson turned his lone reception — one of just eight receptions from Butler receivers — into an impact play. Johnson ran a pop route, with a linebacker trying his hardest to matchup, and the ball soared right over his head.
Johnson turned at exactly the right second, ripping the ball down through the linebacker’s arms and avoiding a swipe from the safety. He stayed on his feet, avoiding and knocking would-be tacklers to the dirt as he raced to the end zone for a 39-yard touchdown reception.
As Johnson raced to the end zone, refusing to be tackled, he felt like he was floating on clouds. “It was like a taste of my new life,” Johnson said. Over two seasons at Butler, he racked up 22 receptions for 293 yards and four touchdowns.
In transferring from TCU, stepping down all the way to a junior college, Johnson knew the risks. However, it was what he wanted. After his time at TCU, he wanted to transition to tight end, spend two seasons (yes, two seasons at the JUCO level) and eventually make the jump back to Power Five football.
“It’s been all mental,” Johnson said. “Just trying to believe in myself and getting people that believe in me. Just having people around that’ll support me no matter what, through my ups and downs. My girlfriend that I have now, she’s been here for almost two years, she’s been with me. She was there when I was skinny, now she’s here when I’m going to Pitt. I met her at the JUCO, pretty cool love story.”
Johnson’s girlfriend Milayna is someone who’s allowed him to rise as he has. If not for her support, helping him at his lowest points as he trained to fit in as a tight end at the college level, he wouldn’t have made it. She’s a true ride or die, but it goes much deeper than her.
“(Milayna) was the one that was physically there, but then you’ve got a whole bunch of people like my mom, my grandma — who’s always been a really big part of it,” Johnson said. “But they were in Ohio, so they weren’t physically part of it, but I could call them and everything like that. My mom, grandma, my little brother who’s coming up in the football world, he’s just learning a whole bunch of stuff. I’ve got my cousins, they’ve been supporting me a lot, we’re really about family in my family.”
And while Johnson’s family was instrumental in securing a place at Pitt, it wouldn’t have been possible without building that familial bond at Pitt. Despite having been committed to Coastal Carolina, a visit to Pittsburgh was all that he needed to truly fall in love with Pittsburgh as a city — not just the football program. With seclusion in the mountains, something he’s never really seen before, it’s a really cool feature.
With a visit last Tuesday, getting to see firsthand how Pittsburgh isn’t just the Steelers, he fell in love with Pitt. Enough to spurn Coastal Carolina — and even interest from schools like Alabama — and immediately commit to Pitt.
“It was amazing,” Johnson said. “I got to talk with coach (Narduzzi). He’s a great guy. He told me the truth, exactly what I wanted to hear. I’m all about realism, being from TCU and being through the stuff that I went through, it’s all about who’s real nowadays. It’s hard to find, but I think I found it.
“It means the world to me,” Johnson said. “I’m so extremely blessed to be where I’m at today. I couldn’t be here without my family and friends; it’s just been a long ride. To be back here to where I feel like belong, it’s just a true blessing.”
— karter johnson (@therealkajohns) May 20, 2022
While Johnson simply loves the game of football, not truly caring where he lines up on the field, he’s just thankful he’s able to line up out on the field. If his number is called, he wants to be able to be of service — in any way that he possibly can.
Johnson has been able to speak a bit with Frank Cignetti Jr. so far, and while he’s not a true every-down tight end, he’s a capable tight end. And he’s still able to serve as a weapon that — at 6-foot-3, 238 pounds — is able to line up as a tight end, H-back and even wide receiver.
“I’m gonna be more of an athlete than a true tight end. My game plan is to help the team win any way I can. I don’t care where I’ve got to be on the field, as long as we’re winning, that’s all I’m happy with.
“I don’t think of it as a career,” Johnson said. “I think of it as my life. I’ve been playing football ever since I can remember any memory, so it’s really just been my life. I haven’t known anything but football.”
At the end of the day though, while Johnson would like to finally emerge as a true tight end, he’s more focused — even solely focused — on bringing team success back to Pitt. He doesn’t care about his own accolades, as long as Pitt is winning, he’s happy. The goal is another ACC championship — and even further.