2024 CFL Draft profiles: Purdue OL Daniel Johnson not bitter after injury-plagued collegiate career

Photo courtesy: Purdue University

After a few years of meagre rations, teams are preparing for an offensive line feast in the 2024 CFL Draft.

The trouble with all-you-can-eat buffets is that there are bound to be a few items that don’t match their appetizing exteriors. With no chance to sample a product before reaching under the sneeze guard, cynics could argue that filling your plate with new flavours isn’t worth the risk when the familiar favourites are right there.

Enter Daniel Johnson, a piping hot entree of an offensive tackle coming straight out of the kitchen. With a prototypical six-foot-six, 312-pound frame, 33 1/2-inch arms, and unique athleticism, the 12th-ranked prospect in this year’s class is as mouthwatering as any who have come through the league recently. The only problem is that professional teams have hardly had a taste of what he has to offer due to injuries.

“It’s a part of the game and that’s the beauty of it because you can’t take any play for granted,” the Purdue product told 3DownNation earlier this offseason. “It’s been a tough process but I’ve learned about myself a lot. I’ve learned about patience, resilience and things like that carry me. I know I can get through a lot of different things that are thrown at me.”

Johnson has played at the very highest level for a Canadian prospect, logging six years of experience in the FBS. However, bad luck and circumstance have resulted in him playing just 1,112 offensive snaps over that span — about the same as some players produce in a single season.

That accounts for just about every snap that the London, Ont. native has taken along the offensive line in his career. Growing up, Johnson preferred basketball until the college offers started rolling in around Grade 11, with his success on the gridiron coming primarily at the tight end position.

“My coaches were really flexible with me. They split me out, I was in the box, I was in the backfield. I kind of did it all throughout my whole entire football career,” he recalled. “They really put me in positions to show my athleticism and I’m really grateful for that because all the coaches down south saw my versatility.”

Those traits landed him on the radar of several NCAA programs but Johnson committed to Kent State University under the impression he would be catching passes, not protecting for them. That idea was dispelled a few days into his first training camp, when he was told his best shot to get on the field would be a move to tackle.

“I was kind of skeptical. I’m in a whole different country. I don’t know what’s going on. I feel like it’s a whole new sport I’m playing and it’s a whole new scheme I have to learn,” he admitted. “I took it and ran with it. I made it an art and I fell in love with the position.”

The initial challenge was mostly a physical one, as the 265-pound freshman was forced to battle against grown men in practice while working with the strength and conditioning staff to add the mass necessary to survive. By year two, he was ready and dressed for nine games, starting the final four contests of 2019 at left tackle.

“Having a basketball background, it was my quickness and my athleticism (that allowed me to succeed),” Johnson explained. “Playing receiver and having to block DBs, having to guard point guards, all the lateral movement and the backpedalling kind of came easy to me.”

It was in the aftermath of the COVID-shortened 2020 season that issues began to emerge. Though he started three of the team’s four games between the two tackle spots, Johnson suffered a patella injury that would require offseason surgery.

Initially, the prognosis for the operation was positive. Unfortunately, the treatment he received was anything but.

“It was initially supposed to be a clean-up, but not having the right doctors and the right training staff around me kind of butchered that,” Johnson said. “Being pushed to play quickly, as the starting tackle you kind of want to get back out there and listen to those guys just to play. That’s been a big issue and it’s just what it is. It’s college sports, sometimes trainers aren’t the best.”

The long-limbed blocker returned to the starting lineup at right tackle in Week 4 against Maryland but lasted just two games before having to exit the lineup again, a testament to his rushed recovery. That would mark his final appearance for the Golden Flashes, as he subsequently entered the transfer portal.

Despite the limited game film, Johnson managed to jump a level of competition in the process. He left the comfort of the MAC for a Big Ten program at Purdue that he hoped would give him the exposure needed to make it to the NFL. The move to the Power Five was accompanied by a massive improvement in facilities and resources, though he never felt out of place amidst the talent on the field.

“It helped me a lot, I wish I did it earlier. It’s a whole different type of environment than what you get coming from a smaller D1 school,” Johnson said.

“I felt at home playing in the Big Ten. Football is football at the end of the day and if you look at jerseys, look at numbers a different way then you’re losing in your head. It wasn’t much of a transition at all. It’s just playing football.”

While he didn’t initially begin as a starter for the Boilermakers, the 24-year-old saw his role grow each week and had fully taken over the right tackle position by Week 4. Then, just a week later, Johnson tore his ACL and was forced to sit out yet again.

It would take a full calendar year for him to get back on the field, appearing in six games for Purdue as a super senior in 2023 and making a pair of starts at left tackle. It was a disappointing end to a difficult collegiate journey, though nobody could accuse Johnson of not making the most of it. He was an Academic All-Big Ten honoree in his final season while pursuing a master’s of education in curriculum and instruction, also being named the Boilermakers’ recipient of the Big Ten Sportsmanship award in the process.

“Not being able to play, seeing your guys ball out and not being on the field is definitely tough but you’ve just got to be professional,” Johnson smiled. “Help the young guys, just do your thing around the facilities. Try to still have an impact whether you’re on the field or off the field.”

Now, the focus has shifted to getting ready for a potential CFL career, which also involves taking care of his health. He received a couple of platelet-rich plasma (PRP) injections into his injured knee following the season but still attended the College Gridiron Showcase all-star game in January in an interview-only capacity, getting some much-needed face time with teams. Johnson won’t be participating in the CFL Combine later this month in Winnipeg though, choosing to do his testing at the Purdue Pro Day on March 7 with nine of his teammates.

He’s had plenty of support navigating the pre-draft process from his older brothers, two of whom have already made their own professional journeys. Alfred Johnson currently plays professional basketball in Europe while the eldest sibling, George, was a fourth-round pick of the Montreal Alouettes in 2016 and suited up in 33 CFL games as a receiver.

The family is tight-knit, having immigrated to Canada as refugees from South Sudan when Daniel was a year old. George has always run point on his younger sibling’s career, guiding him through everything from official visits as a college recruit to giving the inside scoop on interviews with CFL personnel men.

No amount of experienced insight will stop the incoming barrage of questions about Johnson’s durability, as teams attempt to discern whether this particular prospect is flavoured like a ratio-breaking tackle or if the potential has already congealed in the chafing dish. How each of the nine franchises answer could swing his stock anywhere from the first-round conversation to just a mid-round flyer.

At this point, Johnson still believes he isn’t getting the credit he deserves as an off-the-menu special. Fortunately, he feels very comfortable with that status.

“Being a Canadian kid, you’re always under the radar,” he grinned. “It doesn’t bother me, it’s nothing I’m not used to. I’ve just got to get out on the field and show what I can do.”

The 2024 CFL Draft is scheduled for April 30 at 8:00 p.m. ET.

J.C. Abbott is a University of British Columbia graduate and high school football coach. He covers the CFL, B.C. Lions, CFL Draft and the three-down league's Global initiative.