As an eighth grader, Zavian Johnson switched from soccer to football.
In that sport, he eventually morphed from a two-way lineman into a receiver, thanks to a growth spurt.
And after starting his career at Thomas Johnson, he ended up transferring to Frederick High School, following a move into the latter’s district.
No doubt, Johnson’s football journey has featured several new developments.
But there were constants. He kept progressing as a player and kept getting good grades in school.
Those traits help explain why Johnson was regarded as a prospect by numerous college football programs from schools known for their rigorous academic standards.
Recently, Johnson committed to play for just such a school, Air Force, where he’ll continue a football career that has seen him transform from a former soccer player into a tall, sure-handed receiver.
When asked if he was surprised Johnson would get such an opportunity, Cadets coach Kevin Pirri responded with a quick no.
“Not at all, once I pulled up his grades, and seeing how physical he is as a player,” he said.
When it came to academics, Johnson has always had a tireless motivator.
“My mom always stresses to have the good grades,” he said.
In the past, he’s shown interest in the medical field, although he said Air Force’s business program is something he might explore.
Whatever path Johnson chooses, his coach thinks he’ll be able to handle it.
Talking about Johnson’s interest in medicine and dentistry, Pirri said, “He’s definitely that level of a kid academically.”
The schools that expressed interest in Johnson back up that assessment. Before verbally committing to Air Force, the senior said he was talking to Georgetown, Davidson, Columbia, Naval Academy, UMASS and Washington and Lee, among others.
When asked about eventually settling on a military school, Johnson cited some family history.
“My grandfather was in the Navy. That’s a bit of an inspiration as to why I chose that,” he said. “Unfortunately he’s not here with us anymore, but I’m sure he’d be very happy with my choice.”
Johnson’s work as a football player mirrors his work in the classroom, and he didn’t slack off when the coronavirus pandemic hit.
Pirri said the senior had attended every voluntary workout — part of Frederick County’s Return to Play program — he was allowed to attend during the hiatus from competitive sports.
Johnson thought that mindset helped him land a spot in Air Force’s program.
“Just a lot of hard work. In the offseason, I was always in the gym, on the field, doing the best I can,” he said. “God willing, the opportunity came, and I took it.”
His size was a definite plus. While being interviewed on Thursday, Johnson said a physical the previous day revealed he was 6-foot-3. Coupled with his 205-pound frame, it’s easy to see why Johnson no longer mans the offensive and defensive lines like he did as a youth player.
“When I started, I was not as tall and lanky as I am now,” said Johnson, who began playing football for the P.G. Bengals and, after moving to Frederick, for the Frederick Steelers. “I played offensive line and defensive line up until about eighth grade, when I finally switched to running back. And then I didn’t start playing receiver until ninth grade.”
Running routes and snagging passes proved to be Johnson’s niche. That was obvious to at least one local football observer, John Helmer, when he watched Johnson catch passes thrown by St. John’s quarterback Jackson Bittner during the offseason.
Helmer had seen Johnson play years earlier and, after running into Johnson’s mother, found out the young player was deeply involved with football. Helmer then helped arrange to have the receiver work out with Bittner, who needed a throwing partner. Bittner’s father, J, and Helmer are both directors for the Tri-Point Storm, an organization that fields football teams for local youth players.
“I’m like, ‘Holy Cow, you’re a different player than I ever remember,’” Helmer said of Johnson. “He never drops the ball, he has great cuts, great size.”
The elder Bittner and Helmer formed the Frederick Storm 18U 7 on 7 team this fall, looking to provide prep players with a chance to play after the fall high school season was postponed by the pandemic. The team was comprised of standouts throughout Frederick County, and Johnson was one of them.
Johnson thought his performance with the Storm, who faced teams loaded with elite players from the Baltimore and Washington areas, helped improve his stock.
“In addition to film I got playing for Frederick, I got some pretty good film playing [against] some highly ranked people, some committed to Oklahoma, Virginia, schools like that,” he said. “So, I’m sure that helped a lot with scouts seeing that stuff, as well.”
This is Johnson’s second year in Frederick High’s program.
“We moved into the Frederick district,” he said. “It was my junior year, so I came over and played on varsity.”
Johnson came up big in one of Frederick’s most crucial games last season. He made a 55-yard touchdown reception in the Cadets’ 47-46 win over Tuscarora, a victory played a huge role in helping Frederick earn its first playoff berth in 15 years.
With his commitment to Air Force, Johnson no longer has such a major decision weighing on his shoulders. Now, he just hopes to get in one more season, no matter how abbreviated, with the Frederick Cadets.
While Frederick County Public Schools high school sports are all currently on hiatus because of the health crisis, the county plans to offer some sort of competitive season for fall sports during the second semester of the 2020-21 school year.
“Hopefully, if they give us a season, everybody will play to the best of their ability and go pretty far,” Johnson said.