Why Luke Fickell delves into the wrestling background of 4-star DL Dillan Johnson

There is a line where fact and myth collide in the retelling of stories about great athletes. The one often shared about Dillan Johnson’s prowess as a high school defensive lineman seemed at first glance to cross that line. A player so dominant that he causes an opposing varsity starter to leave the game crying? Real?

“It was confirmed by a friend of mine who I see regularly at the gym and who is part of that staff,” said Johnson’s father, Eric. “He said, ‘It was the most embarrassing thing in the world.’ On one level you feel sorry for the child. On another level it’s quite funny. He says, ‘I can’t do anything. He’ll kill me. Get me out of here.’

“It’s real. You can put on the movie and see the second half and it wasn’t there.”

As the story goes, Johnson’s Catholic team in Joliet (Ill.) was in the midst of a 19-0 win in Week 2 against Providence Catholic. It was a good opponent that would win eight games and average almost four touchdowns per game throughout the season. But on this night, Providence couldn’t muster anything offensively and Johnson couldn’t be stopped.

“There was literally one set of downs where he had a tackle for loss on a run play on first down and then a sack on second and third downs,” Joliet Catholic football coach Jake Jaworski said. “That’s probably when the guard went to the sideline, crying because he couldn’t stop him. But it was literally three consecutive negative plays, which is pretty incredible.

“Pretty incredible” is a good way to describe what Johnson has accomplished in high school and why there is so much excitement surrounding his potential at Wisconsin. Johnson is one of 11 247Sports Composite four-star prospects in Wisconsin’s 2024 recruiting class, which is a record for the Badgers during the online rankings era. Optimism is high that Johnson can develop into an impactful playmaker in a position group hungry for that kind of talent.

Dillan Johnson was ranked as the 13th top player from the state of Illinois in the class of 2024 and the 53rd ranked defensive lineman nationally. (Courtesy of Jesse Harper/Victory City Sports Media)

The first thing you need to know about Johnson – and what he is understandably most known for – is that he finished his high school wrestling career an astounding 143-1 with four Illinois state championships. He wrestled in the 285-pound heavyweight division last season, despite weighing around 275 pounds, and went 41-1.

His only loss was to Cole Mirasola of West Bend, Wisconsin, a loss he avenged in the semifinals of the prestigious Cheesehead Invitational. Johnson then defeated Koy Hopke of Amery, Wisconsin, a U17 world champion and the No. 1-ranked wrestler in the country at the time. Johnson took over the top of the rankings and stayed there.

“I’ve worked a number of wrestling events over the years,” Jaworski said. “I give a lot of credit to every kid who steps on the mat. Not everyone understands what a Division I athlete looks like. Then you see Dillan Johnson. It’s like, ‘This is what it looks like.’ It’s not usual.”

Johnson’s wrestling background helped lay the foundation for his penchant for beating blocks on the football field. He said he had developed the ability to move his body well, to influence an opponent and not be overwhelmed by the pressure of the moment. Rare were the 6-foot-4, 280-pound high school players who possessed the combination of skills that Johnson brought. During his senior season, he tallied 90 tackles and 15 sacks and finished with 141 tackles and 25 sacks over his final two seasons.

Johnson comes from a football family, which allowed him to master concepts at a younger age. His father played in the Arena Football League. His older brother, Eric Johnson II, is a defensive tackle for the Indianapolis Colts. His other brother, Marcellus, is an offensive lineman who recently joined the New York Giants as an undrafted free agent.

“He is abnormally strong,” his father said. “That’s not boasting or boasting. He is stronger than his brothers who are in the pros. It’s something strange. He’s already over 450. He can squat 770. He recently did 735 at school. He has a combination of power, violent hands, speed and then tenacity.

“Dillan is different from the other children. The last child benefits from learning. But wrestling has really helped him become a refined competitor and really understand how to compete and how to be consistent. Dillan is also very methodical, very intrinsically motivated, calm and businesslike. He doesn’t understand why people get excited about doing something because he believes it’s your job, so why get excited about doing your job well?

Johnson earned 17 scholarship offers for football, although only two were from Big Ten programs: Northwestern and Wisconsin. Jaworski said schools across the country were intrigued by Johnson but wary that at 6-2 he wasn’t tall enough to fit the profile of what they wanted.

But the Badgers believed in Johnson from the start and had no doubts about his ability to fit into the defensive scheme, which ultimately made a big difference. Johnson initially committed to Northwestern, but backed away from that commitment after former Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald was fired last July in a hazing scandal. Two days later, he headed to Wisconsin, calling it a “no-brainer” as both schools were neck-and-neck during his recruitment due in part to their proximity to home and their status as Big Ten programs.

“I really believe the ghosts made us stay in Wisconsin the whole time,” Eric said.

It didn’t hurt that Johnson and Wisconsin coach Luke Fickell developed a strong relationship over their shared love of wrestling. Fickell compiled a 106-0 record and won three consecutive Ohio high school state championships, including two in the heavyweight division, before starting 50 consecutive games at nose guard for the Buckeyes.

“Every time we show up, he’s always ready to talk about wrestling,” Johnson said. “Honestly, we’ve probably talked more about wrestling than football at this point. It’s a wonderful thing.”

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Fickell said on signing day in December that Johnson’s wrestling background played a big role in Wisconsin recruiting him.

“If we were looking for height and athleticism, I’d also tell you what I’m looking for, wrestlers,” Fickell said. “And it’s just the nature of the beast for guys with a little different mentality.

“I think what he gives us is an opportunity when he comes in here. He is the culture of what we continue to propagate. So I think if he gets in, he has a chance to thrive. He’s a very physical guy – I’m not saying he has the height and athleticism that we might have talked about – but a guy who has an incredible amount of intangibles coming in and I think he can contribute and on can play the right way. . So I’m excited about him.”

Johnson could play an important role for the future of Wisconsin’s defensive line and is part of a wave of young players at the position with intriguing upside. Jamel Howard, a 6-foot-4, 308-pound specimen, will be a redshirt freshman. Johnson and the 6-4, 273-pound Ernest Willor Jr. are four-star freshmen. Hank Weber, a three-star prospect, is another defensive lineman in the 2024 class.

Given Johnson’s success in football and wrestling, the natural question is whether he will play both sports in Wisconsin. Johnson was recruited by Wisconsin wrestling coaches Chris Bono and Jon Reader, regardless of interest from the football staff. Johnson said he still entertains the possibility, although he realizes the challenge of playing college football and the overlap of the two sports may be too difficult to overcome.

He said Fickell has supported Johnson potentially playing two sports — something Eric said was rare among the football coaches who recruited his son — although details have not been determined. Johnson’s report date for summer school and football practice is June 9.

“As of right now, I’m just focusing on football just because I have another month until summer camp,” Johnson said. “And then before you know it the first match is just around the corner. Wisconsin is a great football school, so we will most likely be playing until the end of December. And I know wrestling season starts in November.

“Both teams are great. They’re both very competitive and they’re both busy busting their butts. So we haven’t figured out yet how we can make it work and what it will actually look like.”

(Top photo courtesy of Jesse Harper/Victory City Sports Media)