One of Jeff Filkovski’s biggest wins over the past four years stemmed from remaining interested.
The N.C. Wesleyan football coach’s interest in a running back recruit out of West Carteret High never waned, even through a stretch where the young player took a year off from playing football.
That player was Antonio Johnson, who never did make it as a running back for the Bishops. Instead, Johnson became a star on the other side of the ball and just wrapped up a college career that places him among the most respected defensive players in NCWC program history.
“He is the most dynamic football player I’ve seen at this level,” Filkovski said. “He brought athleticism to the game at his position that was unmatched.”
Johnson, who just finished his senior season, was named a second team all-american. He led all of Division III in solo tackles with 76, and his 117 total tackles led the USA South Conference.
He repeated as the USA South defensive player of the year, becoming just the fourth player in conference history to earn defensive player of the year honors in consecutive seasons. The honor comes after he collected 12.5 tackles for loss, including 4.5 sacks, while also adding three forced fumbles, three interceptions, one fumble recovery, one pass breakup and one blocked kick.
Johnson was also a finalist for the Cliff Harris award, a national award presented annually to the top small college defensive player of the year representing NCAA Division II, III, and NAIA universities.
“It just makes me want to work harder,” Johnson said of the accolades. “I feel like I’m halfway to where I want to be. The all-american honor was pretty good but I’m always working toward something bigger. The awards, they make my goals seem more realistic.”
Johnson wants to play at the next level. He is currently setting up pro days, looking for an agent, and preparing for the NFL draft by strength training and gaining weight. His coach thinks he could catch on as a special teams player in the NFL. His body size — 6-foot-1, 212 pounds — is a little light for a linebacker at that level.
“He could be one of those guys that can shine in that arena,” Filkovski said of special teams. “He’s one heck of a football player and all it takes is someone to take a chance on him.”
Finding players at the Division III level with exceptional talent that catches the trained eye of evaluators at the next level is a numbers game. Simply, a higher volume of players increases the chances of finding a special player.
One benefit to building a roster at the Division III level is that teams can and often do accept a dozens of players from a wide range of talent. There were 122 players listed on the Bishops’ roster this season.
“We do recruit a lot of guys and that’s one of the features that’s a little bit different than some of the other levels,” Filkovski said. “We can bring in an abundance of guys and we’re hoping to hit a home run. “We had guys like Jay Alston, Malik Adams, Trey Lancaster and now Antonio. Even (current junior defensive back) Eddie Graham is right there with them.”
Alston is the Bishops’ all-time leading rusher with 3,907, and owns the top two rushing seasons in program history with 1,460 yards in 2014 and 1,234 yards in 2013.
Adams, who was a preseason all-american in 2016, holds many of the Bishops’ receiving records including most career receiving yards (3,861), most career touchdowns (47), and most career receptions (214).
Lancaster, who played this past season, holds the school record for most receptions in a game with 13, done against Shenandoah in 2018. He is also right behind Adams in many other receiving categories. Lancaster graduated in December and was offered a four-year contract to play for the Detroit Cougars of the Rivals Professional Football League.
“So then you ask, ‘Should they be here or could they play at a higher collegiate level?’” Filkovski said. “In my heart of hearts, I say yes. But there’s a reason they’re all here.”
Johnson landed at NCWC in 2016, fresh off a one-year break from football. His last high school season came in the fall of 2014 for West Carteret, where he gained some interest at small Division I programs as a running back.
But an ankle injury halfway through his senior year put a damper on his recruiting profile, and some of his offers evaporated. He weighed potential playing time with the financial costs of attending college, and decided to pursue alternate options.
Johnson enrolled in the Army reserves after high school and signed a six-year contract. The army would help pay for school, as long as he kept up with his dues. Basic training followed, and now he spends two days each month training in order to satisfy his obligations.
“I still go there twice every month and I do drills there,” he said. “They let me off for any game or school related things. It helped me pay for school. I had to take a year off where I went to boot camp. After that is when I talked to Coach Ski about coming over. He continued to show interest after all that time, so we set everything up and I came here in the fall of 2016.”
Johnson started out as a running back, but the position was crowded. Six running backs got carries during Johnson’s freshman season, and five players were either sophomores or freshmen.
The logjam led to him taking snaps on the defensive side of the ball.
“At that time the stable of running backs was pretty healthy, and there was no reason for him to stand next to me on Saturdays,” Filkovski said. “So we sent him to play linebacker. I didn’t think it was a forever type of deal at the time, but he ended up his whole career there.”
Johnson was a first team all-conference linebacker in each of his three seasons at the position. His game-changing ability spilled over into almost every aspect of the defensive scheme.
Because of that, his coaches were able to be creative with how the deployed him.
“There were a lot of times where we wanted to put him in special situations to rush the passer and be a blitzer,” defensive coordinator Brian Williams said. “And he was a special individual in coverage, too, so whatever we did with him ended up working.”
One play in particular showed how Johnson can take over a game. On the road at Averett, Johnson ripped the ball from the opposing running back and raced 82 yards the other way for a touchdown.
“It was my best play of my career,” Johnson said. “I took the ball out of his hands and started running. I broke like three tackles and I scored. It was crazy. I was proud of that because even though we lost, you could tell they respected us.”
Added Filkovsk: “As a defensive guy you always dream of getting into the end zone. In his career, he got in there five times. He has a knack for making plays at the right place and right time. There is just no stopping him.”