SAN JOSE -- He was considered too small. So was his high school. Even when Travis Johnson was named defensive line MVP at a summer camp for high school prospects, the big-time schools weren't interested in a 6-foot-1, 215-pound defensive end.
But San Jose State saw something in Johnson, and he delivered. Everyone else missed out on a player who:
Johnson achieved all that while helping to lead the Spartans to a 10-2 regular season -- their best record in 25 years.
"Places like this make a living on doing a good job of evaluating players, coaching them, making them bigger, faster, stronger," said Kent Baer, SJSU's defensive coordinator and acting head coach for Thursday's Military Bowl at Washington, D.C., against Bowling Green.
"Those kids can end up being better than a lot of those five-star players," Baer said. "He can play for anybody -- that's how good he is."
These are great days for Travis Johnson, 21-year-old San Jose native. He will marry his high school sweetheart, Hannah Denecour, on April 13. He is on schedule to graduate with a degree in kinesiology a month later. In the meantime, he hopes his name will be called in the NFL draft, April
"Just give me a try," he said.
That's what Johnson wanted from college recruiters four years ago, but few came calling. At The King's Academy, a private school in Sunnyvale with 600 high school students, Johnson dominated.
"He had a crazy amount of sacks, an absurd number," recalled Brent Brennan, then SJSU's recruiting coordinator and now an assistant coach at Oregon State.
The total was 38 over his final two seasons.
But only San Jose State, UC Davis and Sacramento State made offers. "It was his size," said Ron Kellner, TKA's football coach at the time. "It was hard for them to understand ... 'Are you sure you're a defensive end?' "
What the Spartans saw was a smart, driven, versatile player whose potential exceeded his measurables. Asked what he would have told the recruiters who overlooked him, Johnson said: "That I would do anything they asked me to do. That I'm a worker."
He could already bench press 385 pounds and run a six-minute mile, Kellner said. And he played running back, rushing for more than 600 yards. "He had the ability to change direction -- that's really what it was for us," Brennan said. "It's awesome to see what a great player he's become."
Johnson grew to 6-2, 245 pounds and improved each season.
He talks about sacking a quarterback the way a power hitter describes hitting a home run. "It's the best feeling you can ever have," said Johnson, whose 12 sacks this season are just one fewer than the national leader.
Baer said Johnson has meshed natural ability with a willingness to learn his craft. "He's got a feel for it ... a knack," Baer said. "Understands leverage. Great get-off first step. Uses his hands extremely well."
He's also benefited from being coached by two former NFL stars -- in 2010 by ex-49er Bryant Young and the past two seasons by former Dallas Cowboy Jim Jeffcoat. In 29 NFL seasons, those two combined for 192 sacks.
Jeffcoat said Johnson is an underrated athlete with a great understanding of the game. He believes Johnson can once more overcome the doubters and play in the NFL, perhaps as an outside linebacker.
His best attribute as a pass rusher?
"His flexibility. When you're rushing quarterbacks, you're always on angles," Jeffcoat said. "It's leverage. It's not size, it's not speed. Pass rushers come in different sizes and different shapes, but the effective ones have the same flexibility and can turn corners, and he does a tremendous job of that."
Johnson said he's not surprised by his achievements because he expected to work harder than the next guy. But he knows he wasn't a sure thing, so success is satisfying.
"It's exciting," he said, "that the unknown was able to be achieved."
A look at some of Travis Johnson's achievements this season:
Capital One Academic All-American
WAC Defensive Player of the Year
All-WAC first team
WAC and San Jose State career sacks leader (31)
San Jose State career leader in tackles for loss (461/2)