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Bucky Gleason: UB star Anthony Johnson looking to come full circle

Anthony Johnson is still learning the ways of the world like any college kid, but the University at Buffalo wide receiver is smart enough to know this: When your inner circle includes a half-dozen players with NFL experience, including a former first pick overall, you might want to follow their advice.

You might have heard of his top confidant, Texans superstar linebacker Jadeveon Clowney. The top pick of the 2014 NFL draft is Johnson's cousin and grew up a block away in Rock Hill, S.C. He called Monday for a FaceTime discussion about Johnson's future in football after UB completes its season.

Johnson's contact list includes another cousin, Jonathan Meeks, and friend Stephon Gilmore. Both played for the Bills and convinced him to play in Buffalo. Another cousin is Texans cornerback Johnathan Joseph. He works out with Cordarrelle Patterson and keeps in touch with DeAndre Hopkins.

The first five hail from Rock Hill while Hopkins was born and raised about 120 miles away in Central, S.C. Johnson implicitly trusts all six to help steer him in the right direction, knowing they have his best interests in mind.

Every one of them told him to stay at UB for his senior season rather than leave early for the NFL Draft.

"I just talked to (Clowney) last night," Johnson said Tuesday afternoon while showing a screen shot of his cousin. "He's telling me to stick to what I'm doing and focus on the season and don't worry about leaving. He said, 'Don't worry about that stuff. Just finish.' I told him that I was going to stay."

UB wide receiver Anthony Johnson (83) pulls in a pass for a touchdown against Colgate in September. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Johnson, quiet and unassuming by nature, kept the decision to himself before Tuesday. It was a big relief for UB. The possibility of the wide receiver bolting after one terrific season in Buffalo had been hanging over the program going into the Bulls' regular-season finale Friday afternoon against Ohio.

Barring a complete change of heart and ignoring his mentors back home, Johnson plans to build upon a spectacular season by any measure. He's a rising star who in less than three months evolved into the best receiver in the Mid-American Conference and could very well be its most lethal player at any position.

The 6-foot-2, 207-pound junior has been virtually unstoppable since he had 11 catches for 140 yards and a touchdown against Big 10 opponent Minnesota in the season opener. He had 70 catches for 1,201 yards and 12 touchdowns in 10 games this season, which includes five games with at least seven catches and 140 yards.

He could be become the best receiver to emerge from the MAC since Steelers star Antonio Brown, a former sixth-round pick and five-time Pro Bowl selection, played for Central Michigan in 2010. Johnson has been more productive this season than Brown was during any year of his college career.

Johnson has the third-most yards receiving in the country. He's a candidate for the Fred Biletnikoff Award as the top receiver in the country and could be considered for an All-American team.

"It's amazing," he said. "I thought I was going to play a little bit and, you know, have bad games. Everything started going my way. It started clicking. It was crazy."

In fact, it was only a matter of time before NFL teams noticed his 4.4 speed in the 40-yard dash. Agents started following him on Twitter and Instagram in an effort to gain his attention. For a kid who grew up in the projects, he easily could have pounced on the chance to play in the NFL.

Instead, he's betting on himself with the idea he can become one of the best receivers in the nation and improve his draft stock. His gaudy stats came while playing with three different quarterbacks, so imagine what can happen if he gets a full season with healthy quarterback Tyree Jackson next season.

"I didn't want to leave early," Johnson said. "I mean, people are just starting to know who I am. I don't want to be some late-round guy. I wanted to put myself in a better position. It was better that I stayed and be a top guy next year. I have a whole other season. We'll see what I can do next."

It's remarkable considering Johnson was a relative unknown before the season. He introduced himself in the Minnesota game and validated that performance with 11 receptions for 195 yards and two touchdowns in the wild 71-68 seven-overtime loss to Western Michigan before a national audience on ESPNU.

If people still weren't convinced, he had 140 yards receiving against Northern Illinois and 160 yards and two scores against Bowling Green. Last Thursday, in a game on CBS Sports Network, he terrorized Ball State with seven catches for 153 yards and four touchdowns in UB's 40-24 victory.

I'll say it again: Before the Bills traded for Kelvin Benjamin, Johnson was the best receiver in Buffalo. And he should only get better.

"The plays that he's making, with the catches and consistency, yeah, he's pretty special," UB coach Lance Leipold said. "I'm confident he'll get a shot in the NFL. He'll continue to hone his game. The other benefit to that is this: Who is the next Anthony Johnson that we're going to recruit?"

You wonder how players of Johnson's ability can slip through recruiting cracks these days with so much video available and scouts looking under every crevice for good players. It doesn't happen often, but it can happen when – kids, pay attention – athletes fail to keep up their grades in high school.

Johnson didn't care much for school while growing up in a rough neighborhood with Clowney. His mother worked as a cook at a facility for troubled youths and made sure her son stayed away from the muck of his environment. In a familiar tale, he had friends who were turned to drugs and wound up dead.

"Growing up in the 'hood, there was a lot of thing I could have did but didn't do," Johnson said. "I didn't smoke or drink – never in my life. I always knew how to leave when something was going wrong. If I didn't have sports, I wouldn't be here, honestly. That's what kept me out of trouble."

South Carolina didn't recruit him for football, but the Gamecocks were interested in him playing basketball. Johnson was an all-state guard who likely would have played college hoops if he met the academic requirements. The short story: He didn't pay attention in class until it cost him a scholarship.

Johnson played one season at Butler Community College and transferred to Iowa Western CC after a coaching change. Oklahoma State was interested before backing off after realizing he needed more classes to graduate with a two-year degree, required for players who fell short of D-I standards in high school.

He was headed for Marshall before the coach that recruited him left for a Division II school. In the end, last summer, UB was the only program interested in offering him a scholarship. He accepted on the advice of Gilmore and Meeks, who told him he would get a good education and an opportunity to play.

"I didn't know nothing about Buffalo at all," Johnson said. "I had never been here and didn't know anything about it. All I knew was that it was cold."

Johnson arrived in 2016 but sat out last season as a medical redshirt after aggravating a minor back injury and pulling a hamstring. It was just as well. Leipold anticipated a difficult season for the Bulls, anyway, and believed Johnson was better off getting acclimated to the university at the football program.

What a difference a year makes.

Johnson has performed almost as well in the classroom as he has on the field. He has a 3.2 grade-point average while majoring in sociology and plans to graduate in 2019. If all goes as planned, he's not going to worry about getting a job after college. Here's some advice from an outsider: Watch out for that Clowney fellow.

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