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MHS star one of state’s best

Miles Brown knew Emmanuel Johnson was special the moment he started coaching him in the eighth grade. But Johnson, McKenzie’s multi-talented, do-everything player, still does things on the football field that amazes even his own head coach.

Last season the Tigers were wrapping up a 50-8 beat down of Kinston, but the Bulldogs were threatening to score late in the game. The Kinston quarterback lofted a pass to the corner of the Tigers’ five-yard line, but Johnson – nickhamed “E-Man” – raced over from his safety spot, leapt, snagged the ball with his left hand (he’s right handed) behind his head, and landed on his feet.

Brown turned to assistant coach Mike Bass.

“I said, ‘Let’s just watch and see what’s going to happen here,’” Brown recalled.

Johnson did what he does best: made people miss. The junior juked out of tackles and danced around Kinston bodies – both across the field and up it – until the sideline opened ahead of him.

“He hit the sideline and by the time he hit the 50-yard line there was nobody around him,” said Brown. “I told Mike that was the first 145 yard return for a touchdown that I had ever seen in my life.”

Johnson amassed over 3,400 all-purpose yards at McKenzie last season. He played nearly every skill position – running back, quarterback, wide receiver, punt and kick returner, and safety – and those numbers include only the Tigers’ first 10 games. He was good enough as a junior to be offered a scholarship by Southern Miss, but Brown expects other colleges to join that list soon.

“I would think that other schools will become interested in him, especially the instate schools,” said Brown.

Johnson has camped at Southern Miss and attended Junior Day at Auburn University. He’s also received letters of interest from Ole Miss and Florida State.

“It was an honor just to be able to go to a Junior Day,” said Johnson. “What they do there is show you what you need to do to qualify so that you’ll be academically eligible when you leave high school.”

Clearly, the Tigers’ coaching staff have an interest in Johnson, but have yet to extend an offer, said Brown.

That might change soon. Auburnsports.com, a recruiting site that covers Auburn athletics as part of the Rivals network, listed Johnson as the No. 12 player in the state headed into the 2010 football season. The Tigers have clearly shown an interest in signing players from small high schools like McKenzie.

Brantley running back Anthony Gulley and Ariton’s Craig Sanders each signed with Auburn in 2009.

Both of those teams play in Class 1A and are on McKenzie’s schedule.

“This recruiting thing is such a big business and sometimes I get concerned that being from a small school that might take away from how good he is,” said Brown. “But if coaches get the chance to be around him and watch him, they realize he’s got the potential to play college football.”

Brown calls Johnson a “humble,” but “fierce competitor.”

“A lot of that comes from his parents,” said Brown. Johnson’s family lives in nearby Garland. “They have instilled in him a lot of character. They’re very supportive of him. As for what I think he can offer a program at the next level, a lot of excitement. He’s a very exciting player to watch and coach.”

He also is unselfish, said Brown. During a recent visit at Southern Miss, Golden Eagles’ head coach Larry Fedora asked Johnson if he’d like to play defensive back should he choose to go there.

“I told him I’d play for him, anywhere he wanted me to play,” said Johnson. “And that’s any school.”

Johnson said he’s the same way at McKenzie.

“I just want a piece of the action,” he said. “Anything I can do to help my team win.”

If he’s destined to be a defensive back in college, Johnson said he wants to improve his skills there in the upcoming season.

“I want to work on technique…getting my stance right as a safety and back peddling,” he said. “I’m in the weight room right now because I want to gain about 15 pounds. But I got to keep the speed up.”