Taking the moniker from his father, OC Johnson is Big OC now
OC Johnson set to embrace his 'big' nickname
October 15, 2020
“I was just feeling invincible.”
That’s how Jermaine “OC” Johnson Jr remembers his first football game.
The parents that showed up to the field in Silver Spring, Md. that day were treated to the five-year-old Johnson seemingly scoring touchdowns at will. In the sea of 3 and 4-foot players, Johnson consistently found himself pulling away from the pack, using his God-given speed to leave a pile of children in oversized football pads in his wake.
“I would just get the ball, I would run to the outside and try to avoid everybody,” Johnson said. “I scored like three times.”
Coaching the game from the sideline, beaming with pride, was the inspiration for Johnson’s nickname and father, Jermaine “Big OC” Johnson Sr.
Johnson Sr. would be on the sideline for all of Johnson Jr.’s games growing up. The elder Johnson was a basketball player himself but managed to instill the same values that made him difficult to stop on the court into the younger Johnson’s football game.
“To be honest with you, my father’s always been my coach. He’s always going to be my coach. I can’t even put a timestamp on it” Johnson Jr. said. “You’ll always hear him from the sidelines, even if he isn’t there as a coach. He’ll pull me to the side to tell me what he sees and let me know if I need to step it up.”
Growing up in Maryland, Johnson Jr. wasn’t limited to a single sport. Playing not just football, but baseball and track, Johnson spent a large chunk of his childhood on the field with his father. It’s that bond that pushed Johnson to excel, becoming one of the most explosive football players in the area.
On a hot Maryland afternoon, the two Johnson’s, Jr. and Sr., could be found on a football field. In the sweltering heat, Johnson Sr. pushed his son. Having not played football, Johnson Sr. was forced to learn and became a student of the game. His knowledge showed that afternoon. Demanding perfection out of every drill, Johnson Jr. wouldn’t back away from the challenge. Rather, the two would stay, working until satisfied.
When the pair got home, they sheepishly faced Johnson’s mom who was quick to note that Johnson Jr. should be spending half as much time on his schoolwork as he was on the football field. Though the message wasn’t lost on the younger Johnson, that didn’t mean there wouldn’t be plenty more days spent like that on the football field in the future.
With the two OCs finding it difficult to pull themselves away from the field, it became increasingly clear that Johnson Jr. wanted football to be more than a childhood hobby.
His first step in the path would be attracting attention of colleges. It was no easy task as Johnson found himself on a perennial national contender in DeMatha High. With the likes of Mike Johnson, Brian Westbrook and Chase Young all coming through the DeMatha football program, Johnson had his work cut out for him.
Before the first game of his junior year—his first on DeMatha’s varsity squad—Johnson Jr. sat in the locker room watching Tavon Austin highlights. The speedy West Virginia and St. Louis Rams wide receiver served as a mold for the undersized Johnson. Austin stands 5-foot-8 and weighs 179 pounds — not a far cry from Johnson’s 5-foot-10, 165-pound frame.
In the ensuing game, Johnson caught three passes for 86 yards, showing flashes of his NFL hero with his ability to stretch the field even with his small frame.
Johnson followed it up with two more catches in his next game. Then three more in Week 3. Then another two after that. By season’s end, Johnson had 23 catches for 400 yards and two touchdowns. The strong junior campaign put him on the map and soon enough Johnson was a three-star recruit with offers from Florida Atlantic, Howard and Maryland.
The offensive coordinator at Maryland when he got the offer? None other than Walt Bell.
Bell and Johnson hit it off immediately. As someone who had always thrived on a challenge, be it from his father, a coach or an opponent, Johnson bought into Bell’s messaging from day one.
“I talked with [Bell] about how he sees me fitting in with the scheme on my official [visit],” Johnson said. “He told me not to be complacent in anything. He told me to keep working and doing what I’m doing but that it was going to be a grind.”
The grind that Bell talked about came full force in Johnson’s senior year when an injury shortened his season to just two games. With interest from Division I schools drying up, Johnson needed something to go his way.
Lucky for Johnson—and for Bell—the Massachusetts football team had a new head coach that needed recruits on a moment’s notice. The first call Bell made was to reach out to the DeMatha product and see if he had any interest in playing in Amherst.
“The people are so nice up here,” Johnson Jr. said. “Where I come from, the people aren’t always as nice.”
Between Walt Bell, Western Massachusetts and Johnson’s drive to play football at the highest level, the decision was easy. Jermaine “OC” Johnson Jr. would suit up for UMass the following fall.
On Oct. 26 of last year, Johnson Jr. blazed past a Connecticut cornerback midway through the second quarter, plucking a pass out of the air in stride and taking it to the house for a Minuteman touchdown.
On that day, Johnson was tough to miss. The then-freshman caught four passes for 92 yards, including the 40-yard score in the second quarter. The UMass faithful at McGuirk Alumni Stadium that afternoon had no doubts as to who the best wideout was on their favorite team.
For much of UMass’ disappointing 2019 season, Johnson was a bright spot. The 5-foot-10 wide receiver led the team in receptions, finished tied for second in receiving touchdowns and fourth in receiving yards. Johnson hauled in four or more receptions five times last season.
While Johnson impressed by the Minutemen’s standards, he was struggling to find consistency on a sputtering offense. With a carousel of quarterbacks, Johnson led the team in receptions but ranked 238th nationally, a product of a young receiver with a lot to learn about the college game.
Never was it more evident that Johnson needed to mature than in UMass’ Sept. 28 game against Southern Illinois. Early in UMass’ 45-20 loss, Johnson went at a Saluki cornerback after the whistle, pushing him to the ground. The scrap earned him a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and a trip to the locker room for the remainder of the game by coach Walt Bell.
“It’s okay to play with emotion,” Bell said after the game, “but we can’t be emotional.”
Johnson has taken that to heart. As a freshman, Johnson had plenty to learn about the college game. Mistakes like the penalty in the SIU game highlighted the need for the Maryland native to evolve and develop.
Getting benched in a player’s second-career game would appear a surefire way to land in the doghouse and derail a freshman year. Johnson, however, used it as his catalyst to learn.
Johnson might not have flipped the switch and changed his approach if not for a little-known player on the Minutemen roster. Running back Nick Orekoya took Johnson under his wing last year, propelling the young receiver to one of UMass’ top offensive threats in 2019.
“He would always talk to me on the sidelines like, ‘you’re going to be a good dude and you’re going to make a name for yourself here. Keep your head up and bring guys with you.’” Johnson said. “With the freshmen coming in this year, I’m just taking the knowledge he gave me last year and preaching it to the younger guys coming in.”
Not only did Johnson need to learn to be a college football player off the field, but there was also a learning curve on it as well.
It may be surprising that the player Walt Bell has described as the fastest player on the team struggled with the speed of the FBS game, but that was just the case for Johnson his freshman year.
“As a freshman, playing my first game, I was thinking a lot and not getting to play my game,” Johnson said. “That was just the speed of the game.”
Suffice it to say, but Johnson seems to have solved that part, routinely making Division I athletes look like middle-aged men trying to chase him down from behind.
Now, heading into his sophomore season, with a roster comprised of mostly underclassmen, Johnson’s growth will be tested. With freshmen slotting in at starting positions across the lineup and plenty more expected to contribute, all eyes will be on Johnson to guide UMass’ next step as a program.
“I’ve become a little more vocal of a person, slowly but surely,” Johnson said. “I’m not really a vocal person, but me playing my freshman year, I think I could spread some knowledge to them. Let them know what I could have done better so maybe they can have a better year than me.”
A pandemic and inexperienced roster will certainly make 2020 an uncertain and difficult year, but Johnson has never been one to shy away from a challenge. This year is no different.
For the first time in Johnson’s 14-plus years of football, his father won’t be at the games coaching him—either from the sidelines or from the stands. It’s just another opportunity for Johnson to face a new challenge and grow from it.
“My relationship with my father is like no other,” Johnson said. “He’ll push me like no other.”
It’s not like Johnson won’t be hearing from his father postgame about what he thinks he can do better—neither Johnson would want it that way, but in Johnson’s second year in Amherst, things are going to be different.
“You know, ‘OC’ was passed on to me—’Little OC,’” Johnson said. “But I’m ‘Big OC’ now.”
Noah Bortle can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @noah_bortle.