C.J. Johnson draws from several motivations when he plays football.
He, of course, performs for himself and his family, but that's not all. Johnson sees his victories as wins for Mississippi, as well. Filled with state pride, the Philadelphia, Miss., linebacker has had the mission of bringing attention to the Magnolia State during his successful participation in all-star events this winter.
From the Mississippi-Alabama All-Star Football Classic to the U.S. Army All-American Bowl, Johnson has played with somewhat of a chip on his shoulder. Today, another step in the validation process has occurred.
Rivals.com awarded Johnson a fifth recruiting star Tuesday, symbolizing a rise of more than 100 spots in the national rankings. The 6-foot-3, 227-pounder is the No. 21 prospect nationally and No. 2 inside linebacker. He was at No. 138 nationally a short time ago.
"This is so big because not everyone has a chance to be a fifth star," Johnson said. "It's great for my family and just shows how much work I've put in to be successful. It's also a great thing for Mississippi.
"We don't' always get attention, as everybody is always talking about Texas or California, so I'm excited for that reason, too. We might have a small population, but we can play football."
Johnson and Batesville (South Panola), Miss., wide receiver Nickolas Brassell are the two Mississippi representatives in the Rivals100, and for the first time, it's the linebacker at the peak of the podium. Fourth in the Mississippi postseason Rivals.com rankings, Johnson has ascended to first, overtaking Brassell, who is now the No. 51 overall prospect (down four spots) and the No. 7 wide receiver.
But while there may be some playful banter between the in-state prospects, the elite Mississippians are a close-knit group that has become tighter than most in a respective recruiting class.
Johnson, Brassell and other recruits, including Tobias Singleton, Donte Moncrief and Jermaine Whitehead, all communicate regularly and stay connected in the others' lives.
"It all started at a Badger Sports 7-on-7 event last summer," Johnson said. "We won the tournament as Team Mississippi and just got along really well. We've all been social since then, and we agree it's about Mississippi and making a name for ourselves and our state."
"Yeah, we've talked for a while we want to all be in this together," Singleton said. "We think we can compete with anybody."
Mississippi lost in overtime to Alabama in the annual all-star event between the states, but it was a great stage for Johnson to begin his rankings climb. Johnson was excellent in practice during the week and earned Defensive Most Valuable Player honors for his play in the game, where he totaled 17 tackles, two sacks and three tackles for loss.
In the Army Bowl, Johnson started for the East team at middle linebacker and impressed all-star head coach Lance Pogue. The coach just guided South Panola - Brassell's team - the Rivals.com national title.
"(Johnson) is an outstanding kid with a great personality," Pogue said. "He has everything in order and that comes from from a great family. If you look at the SEC every Saturday, everyone has big, physical linebackers and he fits that to a T. If there's a guy who can play in a hurry, it's him. His potential is unlimited.
"If you could draw up a picture of a linebacker as far as athleticism and intangibles, you'd draw a picture of him. His best is yet to come. I think he'll make a quick impact wherever he signs."
Johnson was committed to Mississippi State for close to a year but recently opened things back up following Manny Diaz's departure from Starkville, Miss., to become the defensive coordinator at Texas. Johnson will visit Ole Miss this weekend, LSU on Jan. 28 and make a National Signing Day decision. He visited the Bulldogs this past weekend.
Rivals.com national analyst Barry Every watched Johnson in Mobile, Ala., during the Mississippi-Alabama game and raves about his demeanor.
"He is athletic enough and fast enough to play outside and over power tight ends and running backs but big enough and strong enough to deter ball carriers from running between the tackles," Every said. "He verbally and physically intimidated his teammates in practice at the Classic and followed that up by making 17 tackles versus the Alabama squad in the game."
The all-star season has catapulted Johnson into elite territory, but he's not ready to relax and enjoy the accolades. Johnson must make his college decision and get to work on the next chapter.
"The Army game was great and showed me what the next level will probably be like," Johnson said. "I'm appreciative for all of it, but I've got to remember I'm just getting started.
"This phase has been great, but I'm not there yet. I want to make my family proud and keep climbing."