South Dakota State plays at Western Illinois on Saturday. The Jackrabbits are coming off a 62-point performance at Missouri State last week.
That game featured a truckload of big plays... several of them by SDSU redshirt-freshman, Cade Johnson, who earned Newcomer of the Week mention from the Missouri Valley Football Conference.
Johnson got right to work in earning his honors with a 61-yard return on the opening kickoff.
“First kickoff of the game I was feeling good,” says the soft-spoken Johnson. “I have great blockers and we have done a great job all year scheme-wise on the kickoff team. So I just found a hole and I was able to hit it. Along with the reverse that we had, the give, the pitch (a flip pass from Taryn Christion that Johnson carried for 68 yards). We had very good blocking execution-wise from the receivers and line and running back. Isaac Wallace had a great block and was able to spurt me out. It just felt really nice just getting touches and whatnot and making the most of my opportunities.”
“When you have a guy that’s a great player at one position and then is a great kick returner or punt returner it really helps you out,” says head coach, John Stiegelmeier. “And the thing about kick returning is you have to have great vision and you have to have great feel for that thing and Cade does that and then he has the athletic ability to make the decision and go with it.”
In addition to his kickoff return and the 68-yard flip sweep, Johnson hauled in a 7-yard touchdown pass to round out his big day in Springfield.
Three touches… three big plays.
But his biggest play of the season so far was in the third game of the year against Drake… a 95-yard kick return for a touchdown… the first one by a Valley player so far this season.
“I know some guys only dream of a college touchdown and just having that happen my redshirt freshman year is crazy. I never would have imagined that looking back to last year. Just running that back and a lot of guys congratulating me after that happened and saying that it hasn’t happened in a while (not since 2012). So I’m just glad we can get our KOR unit to where it needs to be.”
Johnson says he “ran a few back” as a senior at Bellevue West High School in Papillion, Nebraska. As a redshirt player last year he continued to build his return resume on the scout team going against the Jacks number one kick coverage unit. But Stiegelmeier admits he has been mildly, yet pleasantly surprised by Johnson’s big play ability.
“I think he is a little ahead of his time from what we expected coming in. But after his first year we did start to expect good things and as the weight room catches up or he catches up with the weight room he is going to become even more explosive.”
He is 5-foot-11 and 175 pounds and fast and shifty. To steal Stig’s line… you don’t put Johnson out there to block a Sam linebacker… but you throw him a bubble screen and number 15 can make things happen.
“Every time I am on the field and get the opportunity,” says Johnson, “I make sure I make the most of it. They’ve put me in a really good position this year and I am grateful for what I have done so far and what they have me doing for the offense.”
And the Jacks are grateful to have another impact player in the program who is paying his own way to being with.
Johnson is not a scholarship player… yet.
“We weren’t able to offer him a scholarship because of our limits,” says Stiegelmeier. “But we really thought he was going to be a great player. So in our formula we promised him what we call a Jackrabbit or a scholarship after two years.”
“One thing about our program is we never cut guys scholarships. We don’t offer a bunch of scholarships and then cut guys that we don’t think are getting it done. So a non-scholarship guy that comes here and pursues his dream we rely on those guys because we’re not making room for them. So when they prove they can play for us we give them a scholarship. Dallas Goedert, Brady Mengarelli, Chris Balster… all great players for us.”
Cade Johnson is showing promise that he could be another great one. He says it took him all through spring ball and fall camp to embrace the role as a big-play return guy. But now he has done it and done it well and his confidence grows with every game.
“I have 100 percent faith in all my blockers. Mikey Daniel does a very nice job of being the off returner and cleaning up anything that is coming in that shouldn’t be so it’s really nice.”
He has bonded with Daniel and learned from Jake Wieneke and studied and competed with Marquise Lewis and watched Taryn Christion be a leader.
He has also loved being one of many #NebraskaJacks on the roster… players from Omaha and Crofton and Kearney and Ralston and Papillion all brought to Brookings by SDSU assistant coach, Dan Jackson.
“Coach Jackson, he just believed in me from my junior year. He reached out to me and we have had a great connection ever since. I came up to South Dakota State and this was the best place for me to go faith-wise and family-wise. It’s just such a great family and we are all close and I couldn’t feel that connection anywhere else whether it would be walking on or scholarship-wise. So I felt South Dakota State would be the best for me.”
PS-Here are the Missouri Valley Football Conference Kick Return Leaders (season overall)
G No. Yds TD Long Avg
1. Cade Johnson-SDSU 7 15 433 1 95 28.9
2. Artis Henderson-ILS 7 11 298 0 83 27.1
3. Darron Wheeler-WIU 6 15 362 0 34 24.1
4. Davis, D.J.-SIU 7 19 456 0 42 24.0
5. Deion Holliman-MSU 7 21 479 0 60 22.8