Johnny Holton won’t be selected tonight in the first round of the NFL Draft. But by the end of the weekend, he will almost certainly be employed by an NFL team either as a late round pick or as a college free agent.
Of the hundreds of players hoping to be drafted over the next three days, the former UC wide receiver is among the most unlikely candidates to make it to pro football.
“I feel like my story is one of the wildest of anybody in this year’s draft,” said Holton.
If you’re not familiar with his story, Holton did not play high school football. As one of 11 children, he worked at a grocery store during his high school years to help support his family. He was eventually spotted playing flag football and got an opportunity to play at the junior college level before transferring to UC.
When he sat down with teams at the NFL Scouting Combine in February, Holton made sure they knew the details.
“Some teams knew my story and some teams didn’t,” Johnny told me. “When I met with teams I said, ‘You know that I didn’t play high school football, right?’ Some of them said, ‘Whoa. Tell me about that?’ I told them about it and that’s why I feel blessed to be where I am.”
In two seasons at UC, Holton flashed big-play ability, catching 46 passes for 892 yards (19.4 ypc) and 10 touchdowns. He also had a 99-yard kick return touchdown nullified by penalty. Those numbers would have been better if he had not been hampered by a hamstring injury last season.
“It was a disappointing year because we went 7-6 and I was out for seven games,” said Holton. “I felt like I let the guys down and I wish I was out there to help, but things happen for a reason.”
Despite the injury, Holton showed enough potential to join Chris Moore and Mekale McKay as the three Cincinnati receivers invited to the combine.
“I was pretty excited,” he said. “As a kid, I always wanted to go to the combine. I used to always watch it on the NFL Network and I felt blessed to have that opportunity.
“Teams want to know how fast and how well I can learn the plays. They also want to know if I am just a vertical guy or if I can go in the slot and run short and intermediate routes. They already know about my toughness and physicality.”
Still hampered by the hamstring injury, Holton was timed at 4.54 seconds in the 40-yard dash at the combine. He improved to 4.42 at UC’s pro timing day in March and was even asked to go through some drills at defensive back.
“The scout from Kansas City just asked me if I was tired after the wide receiver drills and I said, ‘No sir,”’ Holton told me. “He said, ‘Do you want to try some defensive back drills?’ I said, ‘Let’s go.’ Whatever I have to do to get to the NFL, I will make the best of it. I was a little surprised that they put me at defensive back, but I always wanted to play DB and they gave me the opportunity to show what I’ve got.”
Because of his limited experience, Holton is viewed as a long-term prospect. Lance Zierlein from NFL.com described Johnny as a “straight-up vertical guy who can blaze and hit the home run, but who lacks of completeness to his game. Holton’s size and speed are worthy of attention and his ability to return kicks gives him a better chance to make a roster than most limited speedsters.”
Not a ringing endorsement, but not bad considering that most people that skip high school football have NO chance of making an NFL roster.
“When I wasn’t playing high school football, I used to go to high school games and watch other people play,” said Holton. “I would think, ‘I can do the same things. If I get the opportunity, I know that I could make it to the NFL.’ Now I’m on the path to the draft. I just pray that I’ll get the chance to show what I’ve got.”
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