Kaden Johnson didn’t set out on a path to a college football future. For the longest time the Minnehaha Academy senior saw himself as a basketball player, alongside lifelong friends and classmates Jalen Suggs and Terry Lockett Jr.
But his body had other ideas. He grew and filled out, eventually reaching his current 6-4 and 235 pounds. And as he grew, the basketball light dimmed and football shone through.
He is now a linebacker with SMB — a three-school co-op team that includes Minnehaha Academy, St. Paul Academy and The Blake School — and the most coveted football recruit in the state this year.
“I thought I was going to be a basketball player,” recalled Johnson, who has 14 offers from Division 1 schools. “But a lot of people were telling me football was the way to go. Then after my sophomore year, everything started to click. Offers started to come in. A lot of coaches were talking to me.”
Veering into football wasn’t difficult. It just required a simple priority adjustment. He still plays basketball at Minnehaha Academy, which has won back-to-back Class 2A championships. But his route was clear.
“It wasn’t that hard,” he said. “I’ve been switching from football to basketball my whole life.”
Growing up, he loved football just as much as basketball. At first, he saw himself as a receiver. Johnson is a talented pass catcher for his size. He hauled in two touchdown passes in the 2018 Class 4A championship game, including a 76-yarder in which he sprinted past the defense.
“Last year, we were playing St. Paul Central. We were behind and we got down to the 5-, 10-yard line,” SMB coach Chris Goodwin said. “I subbed him in and I said to him, ‘We’re going to throw a fade to you. You better catch it.’ And he made one of the best fade catches I’ve ever seen. Completely laid out, over the shoulder. He scored. It was great. He’d be a great tight end for somebody.”
But college coaches saw something else. Here was a player with size, athleticism, agility. A smart and instinctive leader. And, most importantly, he relished contact.
Everything about him screamed linebacker.
It’s for that position that college recruiters have relentlessly chased after him. He carries the only four-star grade among the current crop of seniors. Of the 14 Division I offers, 13 are from Power Five schools.
“It’s crazy to think I’m the No. 1 player in Minnesota,” Johnson says incredulously, without a shred of ego. “Of all the players out there, I’m No. 1. And think I’m, like, No. 9 in the nation at the outside linebacker position. That’s crazy.”
The outlier offer not from a premier league? Yale, an indication that he’s more than just a good athlete.
“Last year I had a 3.7,” Johnson recalled when asked about his grades. “Which is pretty good. They don’t play games here with academics. You’re going to need that education at the end of the day.”
There is a wealth of Division I talent on the roster at SMB. Besides Johnson, there’s Suggs and Lockett, Johnson’s best pals. Sophomore defensive back Trevon Howard. Three hundred-pound defensive lineman Kevyan Anderson. Running backs Sanjay Redd and Dewayne Givens, both flashy underclassmen.
That doesn’t include defensive back Craig McDonald, who has committed to Iowa State but was declared ineligible for his senior season by the Minnesota State High School League because he repeated eighth grade and used up his eligibility before this year.
All that football skill has generated tons of interest and recruiting speculation. The SMB sidelines are busy places during games, a traffic jam of reporters and bloggers.
“It’s crazy,” Goodwin said. “You ever hear of a high school team having to issue sideline passes?”
Johnson knows a great deal of the attention is directed toward him. He’s patient with the constant inquiries about his collegiate future and feels no pressure to make a choice.
“It doesn’t bother me,” he said. “At the end of the day, I’ll go to the place that’s best for me.”
The Gophers and Wisconsin have long been considered front-runners. Johnson said both are in the mix but he wants to explore his options. There are still campus visits to take and football worlds he wants to see.
“Nebraska. Oregon State. I’ve been talking to Vanderbilt a little bit,” he said. “Tennessee. I like Tennessee football. Iowa State, which is cool. Michigan State. There are a lot of schools still in contact with me.”
For now, there’s a high school football season to complete. He missed most of the first two games with a strained hamstring and is questionable for Friday’s game at St. Croix Lutheran. Johnson thinks he can come back. Goodwin isn’t so sure.
“This week is 50-50,” Goodwin said Tuesday. “Next week, he’ll be back.”
Johnson is getting a little restless. There’s only so much one can do on the sidelines.
“I want to get back out there with my teammates,” he said. “I just love football. Love it so much.”