FARGO — The first graduating class of Discovery High School in Lawrenceville, Ga., received their diplomas last spring. Several days later, Kobe Johnson was on his way to Fargo for summer workouts with the North Dakota State football team.
Johnson was part of a Discovery program that started from scratch his freshman year. He played varsity ball in the Georgia 7A ranks beginning in his sophomore year and the program is on a gradual growth pattern.
“It’s always hard starting a program like that,” Johnson said. “We had our ups and downs, a lot of downs but I feel like in a few years that program is going to turn around and I look forward to seeing that.”
Now he’s part of a program that is fully grown, and then some, at the Division I FCS level. The Bison are on a 22-game winning streak and have won seven of the last eight FCS national titles.
“Basically, it’s the older guys,” Johnson said. “It’s where it starts with the leadership that everybody has. At Discovery, we tried to implement that into the program but stuff like that takes time. Here, it’s been here for a long, long time.”
It may not be long before Johnson becomes part of the Bison rotation at running back. He had an impressive debut against Butler University (Ind.) last Saturday at Target Field in Minneapolis with 63 yards on six carries.
“He is the talent we thought he might be,” said Bison head coach Matt Entz.
Whether that talent plays a maximum of four games this season, which would allow him to retain his freshman status next season, or he has his redshirt removed will be a decision Entz said will probably take place in the next couple of weeks.
“I think that remains to be seen,” he said. “We still have a long way to go but he did a great job when he was in there. He gave us some great reps on special teams as well. As we move through the non-conference season, we’ll have a better take on that decision.”
Non-conference game No. 2 is Saturday at 2:30 p.m. against the University of North Dakota at Gate City Bank Field at the Fargodome. Johnson isn’t sure if he’ll play, but he said he’s fine if he plays the entire season or takes a redshirt.
“They told me to come in and compete, that’s what they tell everybody,” Johnson said. “Come in and learn and just be ready when they call your number to play. That’s been my mindset going into every week.”
He was a late addition to the Bison recruiting class. NDSU didn’t contact him until late December and NDSU assistant coaches Buddha Williams and Tyler Roehl made a recruiting visit to his home.
At that point, he had scholarship offers from FCS schools Alabama A&M, Gardner-Webb and Charleston Southern and Division II West Georgia.
“I didn’t think I would be in North Dakota at any point of my life but I’m glad they came and I’m happy to be here,” Johnson said.
He’s not big at 5-foot-9 and 177 pounds, but showed some ability to break tackles against Butler. And he has speed; he qualified for the Georgia state track and field meet in the 100 and 200 meters.
“I liked it,” said Bison senior running back Ty Brooks. “He ran hard and he ran physical. He didn’t seem to have that freshman not-knowing-what-to-expect thing. He fit right in.”
It’s not like Discovery High School didn’t have resources. The head coach is Efrem Hill, a former NFL wide receiver with Carolina, Tampa Bay and Cleveland. Johnson said the high school practices there were a lot like they are at NDSU.
The school’s first road victory didn’t come until 2018.
“The biggest challenge is you get 80, 90 kids and 70 of them had never played football before,” Hill said in a 2018 Gwinnett County podcast.
“He’s ahead of the game if you ask me,” Johnson said of Hill. “I give a lot of credit to coach Hill. He prepared me well for this moment and when anybody else who graduates goes off to college, they’ll see that too.”