BIG SKY FOOTBALL KICKOFF: Johnson, Hightower give Vandals hope for a better 2019

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MARK NELKE/Press Idaho senior cornerback Lloyd Hightower, left, and senior offensive guard Noah Johnson answer questions at the Big Sky Football Kickoff on Monday in Spokane.

SPOKANE — Recruiting comes in many forms, shapes and sizes.

To find his latest NFL hopeful, all Idaho coach Paul Petrino had to do was take his kids to school.

Noah Johnson, an All-American at offensive guard last year, went to school with Mason Petrino, Paul’s son, and Anne Mari Petrino, Paul’s oldest daughter, in Fayetteville, Ark., when Paul Petrino was an assistant coach at the University of Arkansas.

“I actually worked out with Mason; he was my quarterback in junior high,” Johnson recalled Monday, at the Big Sky Football Kickoff at the Davenport Grand Hotel. “And when I came up (to Moscow) and visited I really liked the town. And I felt comfortable coming all the way up here.”

Senior Lloyd Hightower played mostly receiver at Chapparal High in Temecula, Calif., as well as some cornerback. But that changed when he got to Moscow.

He was recruited by the cornerbacks coach. But another coach saw his film and wanted him at receiver.

“So when I showed up on campus, they had me in receiver meetings, corner meetings, and in the summer I would practice with the receivers, then I’d practice with the corners, then I’d practice with the receivers … ” Hightower recalled. “I asked my coach ... this is too much for me, I just want to focus on just one thing.”

They told him to focus on playing cornerback now, and perhaps receiver later.

Three years later, he’s still at cornerback.

“I was fine with it, because I liked playing corner, but I didn’t know the task I would be taking on at first,” Hightower said. “My freshman year when I first got here, corner was like foreign to me. I didn’t know none of the vocabulary. I didn’t know techniques. All I knew in high school was ‘get out and cover ’em.’ In college, there’s a technique to everything. It’s a different mindset at receiver.”

The 6-foot-4, 302-pound Johnson was named to the HERO Sports All-America third team in 2018 — the first Idaho offensive lineman to earn All-America recognition since Mike Iupati, a first-round draft pick of the San Francisco 49ers and current Seattle Seahawk, in 2009. He graduated from Fayetteville High early and enrolled at Idaho in January 2016. He made the Sun Belt all-newcomer team as a freshman — the year the Vandals won the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl — and the second team as a sophomore. He was first-team All-Big Sky last year and has started 23 games, including 20 in a row.

“It (the NFL) is something I used to dream about as a little kid, and now if I have a good year, I have a shot to do it,” said Johnson, who said if he hadn’t signed with Idaho, he might have walked on at Arkansas. “Such a surreal experience, honestly.”

Johnson said it was an adjustment blocking linemen in the Big Sky after two years in the Sun Belt.

“In the Sun Belt, the D-linemen were bigger players — they played straight up, try to hold you up and let the linebackers make the play,” he said. “In the Big Sky they do a lot of movement, a lot of stunts, a lot of moving around. It’s almost like a little more physical in the Sun Belt and a little more finesse in the Big Sky. Knowing that, I feel more comfortable going into next year, knowing what to expect.”

Johnson, who was offered a scholarship the summer prior to his senior season in high school, said he needs to become a better pass blocker if he hopes to have a shot at the NFL.

And if not ... or perhaps afterward ...

Johnson, a finance major, has a summer internship at Northwestern Mutual as a financial advisor. He heard about the internship from his roommate, junior punter/kicker Cade Coffey from Lakeland High.

“He’s a great young man that works hard and does everything right,” Paul Petrino said of Johnson. “He’ll be successful in whatever he does. That’s for sure.”

After playing mostly on special teams as a freshman at Idaho, Hightower saw action at corner in a couple games as a sophomore, and started all 11 games last year. His 13 pass breakups ranked third in the Big Sky and eighth nationally.

“Idaho was the first school to pull the trigger and offer me,” Hightower said. “So the next week I came up here and it felt like home, felt like family. And it’s a big difference from California; I got tired of all the traffic, all the hustle and bustle. And when you come to Moscow it’s the exact opposite. It was like a breath of fresh air.”

He admitted becoming a cornerback required a “mentality switch” from being a receiver, and said things clicked toward the end of his sophomore year. Though he didn’t think that would be the case coming into last season, the 5-11, 187-pound Hightower said Big Sky receivers were comparable those in the Sun Belt.

“Kinda needed him on defense, and he’s done really well over there,” Petrino said. “I think he’ll have a good senior year, I think he’ll do a lot of good things for us.

“If I really wanted him back (on offense) he’d be back, but we need him on defense.”

And Hightower?

“I like playing football,” he said. “Whatever you want me to do, I’ll do it.”

Johnson admitted the Vandals may have taken the Big Sky lightly, after dropping down to FCS from the Sun Belt and the FBS following the 2017 season.

“Last year … we didn’t think of the Big Sky as being as good as the Sun Belt, and maybe we just didn’t want to be in the Big Sky; we felt like we should still be in the Sun Belt,” Johnson said. “I think this year we’re trying to change that attitude.”

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