ST. PETERSBURG — Four years ago, Purdue cornerback Josh Johnson made one of the most difficult decisions of his young life.
Johnson was a football and baseball standout at Pasco High. In his senior year, he earned first-team Class 3A all-state honors on the gridiron. That same season on the diamond, Johnson batted .427 with eight home runs and led the Pirates in runs scored (43) and stolen bases (17).
Johnson had options to play both sports beyond high school. But after careful deliberation, he chose to concentrate fully on football.
It's a decision he has never regretted.
"I made my decision, slept on it, talked to my family and decided I wanted to play strictly football," he said. "I love what I do now."
What Johnson does now is play cornerback at an elite level, so much so that when the NFL draft commences April 25, the 5-foot-11, 195-pound corner should hear his name called.
"I was so used to playing football and baseball, but then it got to a point where I knew if I just stuck to football, I'd have more free time, more time to polish up my skills at football," he said. "I could watch a lot more film and get a lot more feedback from my coaches and prepare."
Johnson signed with Purdue and appeared in 11 games as a true freshman. He started 10 games his sophomore year before becoming a full-time starter his final two seasons. As a senior, Johnson led Purdue with 16 pass breakups, and had three interceptions and three forced fumbles.
Johnson is one of several college seniors hoping to catch the eyes of a scout and improve his draft stock at the 88th annual East-West Shrine Game, which will be played Saturday at Tropicana Field. Johnson is a member of the East Team and has been training all week with the squad at Shorecrest Prep.
"It's an interview coming out here every day practicing, showing everyone what you have, going in and talking to the scouts every night," he said. "I don't have to have all the scouts like me. I just need one to like me and bring me into their camp."
Johnson has plenty of intangibles to attract scouts. Most are enamored with his feet and intelligence. His athleticism is also noteworthy. Johnson has been fielding punts and kicks on the East's return teams.
"I think Josh will definitely be an NFL cornerback," said Marlon McCree, an assistant defensive backs coach for the Jacksonville Jaguars and the East Team's defensive backs coach.
"He's having a tremendous camp. He's got a good attitude, and he does everything the right way. He's already developing to become a pro, and I think that's going to help him in the long run."
Johnson has spent most of his time during Shrine Game practices refining his technique. McCree said that every cornerback out of college needs time to adjust to the NFL's no contact on a receiver after 5 yards rule. Johnson is no exception.
"It usually takes them about three preseason games," McCree said. "They've got to get cursed out, they've got to get a foot put up their butt, and then after that, they seem to get it. They hold because they think that they're not going to have time. Once they see they can run with these receivers, they seem to play with more discipline."
Johnson said he doesn't pay attention to the draft experts and isn't concerned about what round or where he's drafted. Right now, he's just relishing a decision he made four years ago that has him on the verge of an NFL career.
"Once I wasn't worrying about baseball, worrying about hitting a curveball or worrying about missing class for baseball, it was just straight football for me," he said. "And now my game has stepped to a different level than it was in high school."
WINNING: Mount Union WR Jasper Collins may not have the pedigree of most of the players at the Shrine Game practices, but he holds a clear advantage in one area. In four years at Mount Union, Collins lost only three games. He played in four Stagg Bowls (the Division III championship game), finally winning a championship in his final try his senior season.
"It was a great experience," Collins said. "We love to win, and that's all we know how to do. The coaches prepare us well. When you do lose, it's a bummer. We're not used to it."
At 5 feet 11, 190 pounds, Collins has to overcome the small receiver stigma in addition to the small school tag. But after making a handful of difficult catches against some of the nation's elite defensive backs, Collins, a member of the West Team, is showing that he can compete at any level.
"Football is football," he said. "Not much changes, just the different players you go against. Coming out here and competing is a great thing."