Jason Johnson took photography and graphic design classes during his first couple of years of college, so he knows a thing or two about having an eye for composition. Yet, if somebody focused the lens on the young man from the Windy City’s south side, they would see somebody who has had a rather fulfilling athletic and academic collegiate career.
Underscoring his accomplishments is that the University of Central Florida linebacker was a semifinalist for the Campbell Trophy, an award given to college football’s top scholar athlete.
“It meant a lot to me to have my hard work on and off the field get noticed,” he said. “My parents always encouraged me to get good grades and I always put in the effort to make good grades.”
A perfect fit as UCF’s nomination for the Campbell, Johnson has made the grade in college. He accumulated a 3.64 GPA and received his undergraduate degree in May.
Johnson began his collegiate career as a digital media major at Eastern Illinois University, in the town of Charleston and about 175 miles south of Chicago. He switched to integrated general studies after transferring to UCF in the spring of 2022. The transition was seamless in every which way, including the classroom as Johnson was named the 2022-23 American Athletic Conference Scholar Athlete of the Year for his sport.
“It’s been great overall,” he said of his time at UCF and in Orlando. “I feel like there is a lot more for me to do here and the weather is a lot better.”
Because of the trajectory of Johnson’s career and the timing of UCF’s move from the American to the Big 12, the last three seasons have seen him compete in the Football Championship Subdivision, with a Football Bowl Subdivision Group of Five program, which UCF was last year, and now the Power Five.
Not bad for a player who accepted a half-scholarship offer from EIU because no other FCS school, forget FBS, could match that offer. It came down to staying in state and playing for the Panthers or going to a Division-II school.
Johnson, who began his career at EIU in 2019, knew he could be an impact player at a higher level, which he has demonstrated the last two seasons.
“It really is not surprising because I knew the type of player that I could be,” he said. “I always believe in God and I always believe in myself. I knew I could get it done.”
Johnson was getting it done as a receiver and linebacker in high school at Chicago’s Rich Central. He found more enjoyment being on the offensive side of scrimmage. Perhaps that comes as no surprise as his older brother, DeQuan Dudley, was an all-region receiver as well as a track star at Rich Central before embarking on a football career at the Division-II level.
“He was definitely somebody that I looked up to,” said Johnson. “He was always a star player growing up, so I was trying to follow in his footsteps.”
Johnson traversed those footsteps until his high school coach thought being a linebacker, as well as receiver, would better utilize his ample talent.
“I liked offense a lot more, but my coach felt I could play linebacker, so I tried it out,” he said of becoming a two-way player as a senior.
Though being a full-time linebacker in college has worked out pretty well, only having a half-scholarship offer from a single FCS program made for a sizable chip on his shoulder. Johnson showed other schools what they were missing out on when he garnered FCS All-American honors in spring 2021 — the pandemic delayed the 2020 season until the following spring when many FCS teams played a shortened schedule — and fall 2021 when he led the Ohio Valley Conference in tackles.
“It has always been like that,” he said. “People have always been looking over me or looking past me. So, I would go out and play with something to prove all of the time.”
Johnson would likely still be piling up the tackles at EIU if not for Panthers head coach Adam Cushing having left in January 2022 to be the offensive line coach and run game coordinator under Mike Elko at Duke.
“I was going to stay, but (Cushing) left right before we started winter workouts,” he said. “I thought that I might as well leave, too.”
Johnson hit the portal and several FCS schools expressed interest. So did UCF. He made a trip to Orlando and very much enjoyed meeting then-defensive coordinator Travis Williams, whose unit needed help at linebacker. Johnson was hooked, signed on in March 2022 and left the Land of Lincoln for the Sunshine State.
“I wasn’t really looking anywhere else,” he said. “I wanted to come here because I loved everything about it. When I visited, I kind of committed right away.”
Johnson, listed at 6-foot-2 and 235 pounds, was third in the American last season with an average of 9.0 tackles per game while earning multiple first- and second-team conference honors. The effort led to inclusion on pre-season watchlists for the Bednarik, Lombardi and Butkus awards. After 10 games this season, his final one of eligibility, his 8.5 tackles per game are good for third in the Big 12.
On a warm and wet Saturday afternoon at the Bounce House, the football gods shined brightly on the Knights in an eye-opening 45-3 pasting of what was No. 15 Oklahoma State. Johnson certainly did his part in recording six tackles and a sack while also getting a hand on a pass that was intercepted. The rout brought the Knights (5-5/2-5 Big 12) to within one win of bowl eligibility.
“Finish the season strong and get a bowl win,” said Johnson, on how he would love to cap his accomplished career.