'He's a chameleon': How Louisville football signee Jamari Johnson went from QB to 4-star TE

It only took Inglewood High (Cali.) head football coach Mil’Von James one look at Jamari Johnson to know he wasn’t a quarterback.

Johnson’s 6-foot-4, 270-pound frame had grown accustomed to being a signal caller, though. It’s a position he’d played before his mother's job as a traveling nurse moved the family from Rochester, New York, to Southern California in 2021, prior to Johnson’s junior year of high school.

When James met Johnson, he saw a tight end — not a quarterback — in the New York transplant's body type and athleticism. So James switched Johnson's position.

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Two years later, the switch has paid off.

Johnson is California's No. 24 overall player in the Class of 2023 in 247Sports.com's composite rankings. The four-star recruit earned scholarship offers from Alabama, Florida State, Arizona and Louisville, where he’ll start his college football career after signing with the Cardinals on Jan. 7.

The transition from quarterback to tight end did not always come easy for Johnson, a midyear enrollee, and it required some convincing.

You don’t spend years training as a quarterback and attend passing academies, like one hosted by former Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, only to become a tight end. So the proposition was met with skepticism and resistance.

“We assured him that, hey, one, we knew what we were doing," James said, "and we had his best interests at heart and that the move would benefit him in the long run."

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Johnson came around.

And he was a naturally gifted pass catcher. James recalled watching Johnson, prior to his junior season, warming up with the Sentinels' quarterback making one-handed catches just as easily as receptions with two hands. If the ball was in the air, there was a good chance Johnson was coming down with it.

“You realize how big his hands are, and how natural a receiver he just is,” James said. “Then you watch him play basketball, he's athletic, he's above the rim. Not to say that a quarterback can't have those skill sets, but it definitely translated to him moving to tight end.”

Johnson’s tight end debut in Inglewood's 2021 season opener didn't stand out on the stat sheet, with just a few catches in the Sentinels’ 29-26 win over Loyola. In Game 2, he returned to his old position in an emergency situation, helping the squad to a 29-12 win over Rio Mesa.

The third time was the charm.

James said Johnson had 10 catches for more than 100 yards in Inglewood’s 52-0 win over Compton. A month later, not even 10 games in at his new position, Johnson received his first Power Five conference offer (third overall) from Florida State.

As a junior, he helped Inglewood (11-1) win an Ocean League title that year and earned all-league honors. During his senior season at tight end, he was named the league MVP as a 1,000-yard receiver with 15 touchdowns. The Sentinels ended the regular season with a perfect mark and capped the year with an appearance in the California Interscholastic Federation’s Southern Section Division 2 finals.

James said it was Johnson's work ethic and willingness to buy into what his coaches were teaching him that led to his success those two years.

“He didn't know how to run a route initially. He just could catch the ball,” the Inglewood High coach said. “He worked with trainers. He worked with our coaches, and he tried to hone his craft. ... It just speaks to his talent, his potential and how great he actually could be.”

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Johnson committed to Louisville, his fourth overall scholarship offer, on April 5 under then-head coach Scott Satterfield and stuck with the pledge after Satterfield left for Cincinnati in December and Jeff Brohm was hired to take over his alma mater.

"I think he can grow to be very strong and physical tight end with great receiving skills and ability to stretch the field," Brohm said. "It's a little bit of adjustment to get used to the size and physicality of the college game, so that will happen a little bit. But, we're going to push the envelope and get him out there as much as we can this spring and let him learn as fast as he can. If he's ready to go, he'll be out there playing."

James is confident the change from high school to college football will not stop Johnson.

“He's had to adjust to, what, 3,500 miles moving clearly across the country, and he adjusted to that well,” James said. “He had a change of position. He took to that. He's a chameleon. He's the person who's going to adjust and can adapt more than anything. His ability to adapt to his surroundings is what makes him unique.”

Reach Louisville football, women's basketball and baseball beat writer Alexis Cubit at acubit@gannett.com and follow her on Twitter at @Alexis_Cubit.

This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: Louisville football recruiting: Jamari Johnson became 4-star tight end