Former Kansas State Hoops Standout D.J. Johnson Pursues NFL Chance With Bears

By Chris Emma–

LAKE FOREST, Ill. (CBS) — While serving as one of the most trusted minds in the Saints’ front office, Bears general manager Ryan Pace saw how a basketball standout could become an NFL star.

He, of course, was Jimmy Graham, a beast near the rim who played just one season at tight end with the Miami Hurricanes while playing four years of college basketball. The Saints saw the potential and reaped the rewards. Now, Pace is looking for the same with his Bears.

The Bears signed Franko House, a 6-foot-6, 250-pound forward at Ball State who will work as a tight end. Then, they invited former Kansas State basketball standout D.J. Johnson to try out at rookie minicamp this past weekend. After Johnson tried out with the Chiefs at tight end, the Bears brought him in to try outside linebacker.

While former Kansas State teammate Wesley Iwundu was working out at the NBA Combine in Chicago, Johnson was up the road in Lake Forest with the Bears. Johnson averaged 11.3 points and 5.7 rebounds per game last season with Bruce Weber’s Wildcats. Rather than plugging his 6-foot-9, 237-pound frame at tight end with House, the Bears worked him at his high school placement as an edge rusher.

Johnson last played football in high school. A two-sport star at Parkway North in St. Louis, he opted to hit the hard court instead and signed on with Kansas State. With the Wildcats, Johnson was known for his toughness.

Instead of attacking the rim, Johnson is now attacking quarterbacks.

“It’s a little different,” Johnson said after Friday’s practice at Halas Hall. “Same aggression, though. This time, you get to hit somebody.”

Johnson was the tallest man on the field Friday at rookie minicamp, towering over teammates. For the most part, it all seemed to come naturally for him.

Johnson was an all-conference selection as a senior at Parkway North in both football and basketball. On the gridiron, he was a star at both tight end and defensive end. The Bears believe his size and athleticism has potential in the NFL.

So Johnson spent the last two months working with the Kansas State football staff. He had graduate assistants to help him relearn the positions of tight end and edge rusher, plus the strength staff to help his body be ready.

After running through the Big 12 basketball gauntlet, the biggest physical adjustment for Johnson came with adding size and adjusting his workout regimen. He was just as focused on the preparation. The film study was crucial.

“Making sure I do everything right is going to be the hardest thing,” Johnson said.

“I set high expectations. That’s just me. I want to do well. I expect to exceed those expectations.”

The Bears on Sunday signed receiver Titus Davis moments after their minicamp concluded. He’s a 24-year-old who with some experience in NFL practices. Johnson can hope for a phone call this week.

Why would Johnson pursue this NFL chance? Really, it was simple.

“It was just something I didn’t want to look back on and say, ‘Oh, I had an opportunity to do it but I didn’t take advantage of it,'” he said. “I want to take advantage of an opportunity.

“I want to come out here, impress somebody and make the team.”

Chris Emma covers the Bears, Chicago’s sports scene and more for CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @CEmma670 and like his Facebook page.

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