Kameron Johnson has only had about six weeks and a dozen or so practices with the Bucs, but the undrafted rookie receiver’s favorite moments are when he makes a catch or a move in the open field and someone walks up a minute later.

“People start asking: ‘Where are you from? Where’d you go to school at?'” Johnson said. “They know nothing about Barton. A lot of people don’t know about Barton.”

To answer the basic questions, as Johnson does proudly: Barton College is in Wilson, N.C., and its nickname is the Bulldogs. They play in Division II, and Johnson was part of their first football team when the program relaunched in 2020, actually playing their first four games in spring 2021 due to COVID-19.

Barton had last played football in 1950, when it was Atlantic Christian College, and on the first play of the reboot, Johnson lined up at receiver, got the ball on a reverse and threw a 58-yard touchdown pass to his quarterback. Now, after 51 catches for 875 yards and 7 TDs last season, he’s the first Barton player to sign with an NFL team.

“It’s definitely like a dream come true,” he said, sitting in the Bucs’ cafeteria after a morning practice last week. “Just watching greats like Mike [Evans] and Chris [Godwin], trying to be a sponge as much as I can. Being out there on the practice field, I see I belong at this level, because I can definitely compete with everybody out there.”

Undrafted rookies are generally long shots to stick on an NFL roster, and of the 90 players on the Bucs’ roster, Johnson might seem the most unlikely on paper. He’s the only one sharing a jersey number with another player, as both he and former first-round draft pick Joe Tryon-Shoyinka are wearing No. 9 right now. If Johnson were to make it through final cuts, he’d get a new number.

Go back four years, and he was graduating high school in Rocky Mount, N.C., as a 5-foot-6, 140-pound quarterback. At that size, he had no Division I offers and just a few nearby Division III and NAIA offers. Instead, he chose to be part of the first team at Barton. That first game had an announced attendance of 240 people; his final game last fall had 207 on the road. Barton’s home stadium seats 3,500 fans, and in a few months, Johnson could be playing in front of 60,000.

“It’s been surreal,” he said. “Coming from Division II, I’m like the bottom of the barrel. Being here is a culture shock — everything, locker room, equipment, this cafeteria, just everything.”

Johnson has grown considerably in the past four years, so he was measured at 5-foot-8, 185 pounds before the draft and says he’s now 190. He ran the 40 in 4.46 seconds, posted a 37-inch vertical jump, and in a short time, he’s made a strong first impression on his coaches since coming to Tampa.

“Extremely athletic,” coach Todd Bowles said last week. “He can catch and get upfield in a heartbeat. He’s a very good pattern runner and has very good hands. It’ll be nice to see him in pads.”

That the Bucs found Johnson speaks to the depth of their commitment to scouting and leaving no stone unturned. Their area scout, Brian McLaughlin, spent time on Barton’s campus last fall, watching a practice. The school didn’t have much tape available, but McLaughlin got access to the team’s HUDL account to get more game footage to evaluate. It’s common for small-school prospects to participate in the pro day of a larger school nearby, and when Johnson worked out in Raleigh at NC State‘s pro day, Tony Hardie, Tampa’s assistant director of college scouting, was on hand as well.

“It’s a testament to what these guys do and how much they dig,” Bucs director of player personnel Mike Biehl said. “If they’re out there, we’ll find them.”

Johnson averaged 17.24 yards per catch last season for Barton. (Photo courtesy of Barton College)

Back at Barton, they’re thrilled to have a player on an NFL roster, another step in a program’s growth. Chip Hester, the head coach since the program started up again, wears a “BC” polo everywhere he goes, but said once he gets west of Greensboro, people think it’s Brevard College, another small school.

In addition to Johnson, Barton had a second Bulldog in an NFL camp this offseason. Running back Jordan Terrell attended rookie minicamp with the Titans as a tryout player before signing with the CFL’s BC Lions in mid-May.

“This is a big deal for us,” said Hester. “We’ve got a great place here, a great community. One of the things I love so much about he and Jordan getting the opportunities they’re getting is they’re two of our best workers. For the rest of the team, you say, ‘Hey look, this is how you work, and this is what might happen if you work this way.’ It’s been fun to watch.”

Barton’s program was new enough that it had just two coaches on the recruiting trail when they spotted Johnson, noting how he played with confidence in football and basketball despite being surrounded by bigger athletes.

“He made plays. He was just undersized,” Hester said. “You saw the potential there, and at that time, we wanted to get as many quarterbacks as we could. In high school, when you’re trying to find your best leader and your best athlete, you put him at quarterback. We knew he’d be an impact player, and he worked himself into being a great player.”

Hester was at North Carolina A&T before he took the Barton job, and one of his players there was running back Tarik Cohen, who played four years with the Bears and made a Pro Bowl despite being only 5-foot-6 and 180 pounds. Hester has seen smaller players from smaller schools make it all the way to NFL stardom before, and he hopes for more of the same with Johnson.

“I thought if someone gives him the chance, he’s going to make a good impression,” Hester said. “I told all the scouts that came through, ‘If you like what you see on film, you’re going to love him as a kid.’ Coaches are going to love him and teammates are going to respect him, because of the way he works. I’m not surprised, but very pleased, that he has this opportunity.”

Expect Baker and the Bucs to be better this season?

Johnson got bigger, but he also made himself smarter, a self-described “football nerd” hitting film to learn opponents’ tendencies, processing the game on a much more detailed level and loving that aspect of game prep.

Johnson could have returned to school for a fifth season because of the COVID year but chose to go pro. The Athletic’s Dane Brugler had him ranked as the No. 63 receiver in the draft, and only 35 were selected, but the Bucs knew who he was and jumped on him after the draft. Johnson had heard from the Jets, Texans and Saints, but Tampa Bay was able to sign him after the draft with a $10,000 signing bonus — an extremely small investment by NFL standards — and now he’ll compete for a roster spot.

“He’s exceeded expectations,” Biehl said. “You don’t really know a whole lot about him coming in. Every time we get through a free-agent class, the guys I haven’t seen, I’ll throw tape on. We had two games in our system, so I really couldn’t watch a lot after the fact. Everything we saw was out here for the first time.”

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A small-school gem like Johnson is rare, and will be increasingly hard to find. The advent of NIL payments and the transfer portal means that bigger schools are identifying talent at lower levels and targeting them, making it less likely an NFL-level prospect like Johnson stays with a smaller program for his entire college career.

The Bucs’ top four receivers are pretty set, but Johnson is now part of a wide-open competition going into training camp, with nine other receivers, mostly young and inexperienced, battling for the last two or three jobs. 

“It’s definitely exciting,” he said. “But I’m focused, tunnel-visioned on this playbook. You can’t take any day for granted. You have to take advantage of your opportunities, show them what you can do to help this team.”

Greg Auman is FOX Sports’ NFC South reporter, covering the Buccaneers, Falcons, Panthers and Saints. He is in his 10th season covering the Bucs and the NFL full-time, having spent time at the Tampa Bay Times and The Athletic. You can follow him on Twitter at @gregauman.

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