The road less traveled, UND safety finds Division I success

GRAND FORKS — Tykeise Johnson hasn’t taken the easy path.
As a high school senior at Coon Rapids (Minn.), the wide receiver broke his wrist and had to play defensive back.
In order to get his academics in order, Johnson then went to Central Lakes Junior College in Brainerd, Minn.
Even with his Division I break — when University of North Dakota defensive coordinator Eric Schmidt took the advice of a former UND graduate assistant and high school coach at Coon Rapids — Johnson was offered a walk-on opportunity for the Fighting Hawks.
In his first season in Grand Forks, Johnson had to redshirt last season in order to get a better grasp of the playbook.
That perseverance, however, has started to pay off.
UND coach Bubba Schweigert offered Johnson a scholarship last week and this week he’ll be the starting safety in front of roughly 70,000 when the Fighting Hawks travel to Seattle to play No. 9 Washington at Husky Stadium.
“It’s a blessing,” Johnson said. “It’s always been my dream to play Division I. I’ve been saying since I was a kid that I’d play Division I. I was excited (to be given a scholarship). My family was excited. My friends and teammates were proud of me. It actually made me closer to the team and coaches that they believe in me.”
In his Division I debut against Mississippi Valley State last Thursday night, Johnson started at safety, made three tackles and was credited with a quarterback hurry.
What impressed UND’s coaches to move Johnson up the depth chart?
“His coverage skills,” Schmidt said. “He’s done a good job in 1-on-1 situations. He can hold up in man coverage, and he’s got some confidence now. He improved in fall camp, especially in practices about 15 to 20 … we thought he took a good jump.”
Johnson’s emergence has been especially important early this season for the Fighting Hawks as expected starter Lenny Nelson has battled a shoulder injury.
Nelson has missed considerable time at fall camp and was only on the field very briefly in the season opener before returning to the sideline.
Johnson and his defensive back mates expect to be busy against the Huskies.
Washington quarterback Jake Browning, with 79 career touchdown passes, is four touchdowns away from the Pac-12’s all-time Top 10. His 9,400 career passing yards currently rank No. 2 in UW history and No. 21 in the Pac-12.