The Long Journey to the Top for New Pitt TE Karter Johnson Has Been Well Worth It
When Karter Johnson arrived at TCU as a 280-pound four-star recruit in the class of 2019, one of TCU’s top-ranked recruits in the class, he had the expectation that he would be groomed into a defensive end. That wouldn’t be the case.
His weight ballooned to 338 pounds at its peak, as he was tasked with playing the zero technique lineman in TCU’s defense, and it wasn’t at all what he signed up for. He didn’t recognize himself, and 16 hours from home in Ohio, he was in a dark place mentally. He needed a change in the worst way — in every sense of the word.
Johnson credited his girlfriend Milayna for helping through the darkest days of his transformation and football journey, but it wasn’t as if he wasn’t working every single day to drop nearly 125 pounds from his frame before he entered junior college.
“I ended up losing a total of 123 pounds,” Johnson said Friday. “I went down from 338 to 215 in a matter of eight to nine months. That was really a big toll on my body. I was really weak at 215, and I didn’t like it, so I ended up hitting the weight room a lot in the summer before I went to JUCO. Once I got there, they had a great program there, and I pretty much got to where I am now.”
Johnson now stands at 6-foot-2, 255 pounds, a big, strong tight end who has impressed immensely through just the first week of training camp with his athleticism and ability to high-point passes over the middle of the field, and after the almost literal torture it took to get to this point, it’s almost surreal to say that Johnson is someone who should be able to supplement Gavin Bartholomew in 2022.
“It was a struggle at first, but eventually I got into it,” Johnson said. “I made it a motivation for myself to be the best I could be at the new weight, and I was. So, I really changed my personality, my persona and became a new person.”
Unhappy at 215 pounds, Johnson rose from 220 to 230 to roughly 240 as he entered Pitt. And at 255, he looks every bit of it. In the best way possible. He’s chiseled and runs like gazelle across the middle of the field. It’s courtesy of being fed real well at Pitt, four times a day, and with the number of workouts he goes through at Pitt on a daily basis, he’s kept on a very strict regimen.
And after two seasons at Butler (Kan.) Community College, Johnson has earned the opportunity to make an impact at the Power Five level. It may be a different position, a different side of the football, but it’s been nearly a lifetime of work.
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.
All of it came in large part because of Johnson’s decision to cut — and cut hard. His diet consisted of under 1,000 calories per day, running upwards of two, three miles per day. The process was harsh, but it became a process that Johnson fell in love with. It may have been harsh, but it was just what he needed to reach the pinnacle of his dreams.
And now that Johnson has made it to Pitt, in forming those bonds with his new teammates, his belief in being the best version of himself, believing that it’s his job to be the best that he can for his team has only grown. And that’s what he’s done since he’s arrived. In learning Pitt’s offense, it’s been about being patient. Learning the reads and playbook, learning what it takes to be a threat in the offense.
With the end goal in sight, a legitimate chance to carve out a spot behind Bartholomew in Pitt’s offensive scheme, the struggle of the early TCU days and attempt to acclimate to the college level are very far in the rearview mirror. Where Johnson once felt like he was on an island, feeling very, very low about himself mentally, he feels very, very good about himself now. In fact, he feels like he’s exactly where he needs to be.
“Once I got down to 215, I didn’t even see my abs until I went to Florida on a vacation,” Johnson said. “I took some pictures, and I was looking at the pictures, and I was like, ‘Is that a six-pack right there?’ I was really confused, and after I saw that, I ended up working even harder just to continue to be great.”
Johnson is now a week into Pitt’s training camp, and if the first week is any indication, he’s in for a season unlike any he’s experienced. He isn’t going to dominate the room, not with Bartholomew in place, but Pitt’s penchant for two tight end sets bodes well for his future success. And after the journey Johnson’s undergone, it’s remarkable that he’s set up to be one of the more athletic receiving options in the room this season.
Inspiring story. Johnson should be considered a leading contender to be crowned the biggest Panther surprise of the upcoming season.