Both of his parents attended college in the city — his father at Buffalo State, his mother at Buffalo — and Johnson was born there before moving to Georgia when he was 2 years old.
So, once Johnson completed his career at Marietta in 2008, his parents encouraged Buffalo’s then coach, Turner Gill, to let Johnson join the team and work his way through to a more prominent role.
Johnson has built a role as Buffalo’s starting cornerback, and he will have an opportunity to showcase his talents in front of family and friends when the Bulls meet No. 6 Georgia on Saturday at Sanford Stadium.
“I grew up a (Southeastern Conference) fan and loved watching college football in the South,” Johnson said. “I’m really excited. It’s always been a dream of mine to play between the hedges at Sanford Stadium, so I know I’ll get to cross that one off my bucket list on Saturday.”
Johnson has already started collecting tickets for the game in hopes that he’ll have enough.
“I have some friends at UGA,” he said, “so it will be a great experience to come down there and play in front of them. I’m truly blessed.
“I expect about 30 to 40 family and friends to be there, but it’s important for me to treat it like any other football game and not overthink it. I just have to line up. I understand that (the Georgia) players (are) like me, and they put their pants on like I do. We have a chance to go down there and compete and win, and that’s our focus.”
After redshirting his first season at Buffalo in 2009, Johnson played as a member of the Bulls’ special teams units the following season, where he contributed three tackles for new coach Jeff Quinn while continuing to understand the defensive playbook.
Entering his sophomore year, Johnson had done enough to earn a starting role as a cornerback, and he was given a scholarship before training camp in 2011.
“The University at Buffalo is a fine institution with a standard of academic excellence,” Johnson said. “I appreciated coach Gill giving me the opportunity to come here and win a championship, and I’m grateful that coach Quinn and his staff continued to believe in me. I’ve just made the most of my opportunities.
“The weather can be difficult sometimes, but I don’t let external factors affect my ability to play football. Once you get used to it, you just go out and play.”
That is exactly what Johnson has done. Lightly recruited out of Marietta, he received attention from mostly NAIA schools after playing as a 5-foot-11, 160-pound linebacker for former Blue Devils coach James “Friday” Richards.
Now listed at 6 feet, 185 pounds, Johnson started all 12 games for Buffalo last season, totaling 39 tackles — 31 solo — and leading the Mid-American Conference with 15 pass breakups. He broke up a career-high four passes and made four tackles against Ball State on Sept. 17, and he had a career-best seven tackles with three breakups against Tennessee on Oct. 1.
Johnson logged his first interception against Akron on Nov. 19, returning a pass out of the end zone for 31 yards.
“Najja has done a great job representing our program,” Quinn said in a clip from a news conference posted on Buffalo’s website. “He’s stayed very focused on the development plan we’ve had for him (after Buffalo lost several starting defensive backs to graduation). He has tremendous talent. He’s a great young man, and he’s competitive.”
Johnson spends most of his summers in Buffalo working out, taking classes and trying to improve his skills. He says he gotten better by watching more game film and staying after meetings and talking to coaches.
“It’s a maturation process,” he said. “Since I’ve been here, I’m using tools and lessons to improve my mental toughness and become more of a student of the game. I also have to thank the strength and conditioning staff for helping me with speed, agility and hip-flexor drills. I’m a much better player now.”