TEMPE, Ariz. -- It all started with a nod of his head.
Paris Johnson Jr. had finished eating during his visit to the Arizona Cardinals in early April -- teams can invite 30 prospects to their facility for interviews and a physical -- and was walking down the hallway that runs through the weight room when he turned a corner and saw quarterback Kyler Murray for the first time.
Johnson nodded his head. He said he was just trying to act cool around the former first overall pick.
“I’m not trying to act a fanboy, but I’m like, ‘What’s good?’” Johnson said.
Murray responded by inviting Johnson over to talk.
“Then he’s like, ‘P, come here,’” Johnson remembered Murray saying. “And I’m like, ‘Yo, he knows me.’”
Until that moment, Johnson had known Murray only as the quarterback he watched on film and from using him on Madden. Johnson, whom the Cardinals traded up to take at No. 6 overall in last week's draft, was so blown away that Murray knew his name that he snuck a quick text to his Ohio State teammate Luke Wypler as he walked toward Murray.
“Dude, Kyler knows my freaking first name,” Johnson said he texted Wypler.
What Murray then said floored Johnson even more.
“He goes, ‘Yo, Paris, what’s up? I’ve seen you play, I’ve seen your pro day, I’ve seen all this. I love what I see. I see how hard you play, the tenacity, the finish and I’d love for you to block for me,’” Johnson recalled. “It’s coming from a franchise guy. He said it before I had a chance to say it’d be an honor to play for him. He said it first, coming out of his mouth first.
“That’s huge. That’s an honor. I respect that, so that’s amazing.”
Coach Jonathan Gannon reflected on how there’s a mutual respect between top college players and NFL players because of the bond they share having gone through similar experiences.
“You don't think about it from our seat or our standpoint as far as these guys are really good college players and they're in the news and kind of public figures, but they still have an appreciation for guys that have done it and played at a high level,” Gannon said.
About two weeks later, Murray got his wish.
General manager Monti Ossenfort said Thursday night he didn’t know Murray wanted Johnson.
“Somebody told me that. We have to get Kyler on the scouting staff,” Ossenfort joked. “Maybe we can start sending him out on the road to look at some guys? I don’t know if he knows Paris. I think they bumped into each other when Paris was here on the 30 visit.
“So, yeah, Kyler’s a fan. That’s good.”
The morning after Johnson was drafted, after being flown from Kansas City to Arizona on a private plane, he was walking through the parking lot at the team’s facility when Murray snuck up behind him to say hello.
did we just become best friends?— Arizona Cardinals (@AZCardinals) April 28, 2023
The foundation of a relationship that began during that quick hello in the Cardinals’ facility was solidified. It’s what Ossenfort wants to see more of. He said veterans developing relationships with rookies so quickly is “awesome.”
“I think you always want that bond,” offensive coordinator Drew Petzing said. “I think guys that feel close to each other in terms of shared common goals, guys that have a respect for each other and have that relationship tend to play hard for each other.”
Johnson has a good idea of what he’s getting by playing in front of Murray, who's recovering from a torn ACL to his right knee that forced him to miss six games in 2022. Johnson said he watched “a lot” of Murray at Oklahoma, especially during his own recruiting process. Even though he never visited Norman, Johnson said the explosive offense that Oklahoma had with Murray was attractive.
Johnson ended up at Ohio State, but he didn’t stop following Murray.
“I feel like you don't really need to watch a full game to be able to know [how] he plays because he'll be on Twitter, Instagram, and you will see him and then he just throws that thing up, boom and it’s gone,” Johnson said. “He can do whatever he wants. He's like a video-game quarterback. You give him the time he needs and he can make whatever play, and that's all you ask for as a lineman is a quarterback that's willing to do whatever it takes to make the play.
“I don't get the sense that he's a selfish quarterback. I think that's why the linemen in here are the way they are because they know you play hard when you have a quarterback like that, you give your all. You already know he’s giving his all back there. You love that.”
Murray’s ability to extend plays and his faith in his linemen caught Johnson's attention.
“I love the way he trusts his tackles to stay in the pocket when he needs to stay in the pocket,” Johnson said. “Yet, again, if something were to break down, he fights [to] the finish and he believes that his tackles are going to keep playing to extend the play while he’s trying to move outside of the pocket to get the right throw.
“He’s not afraid to put himself out there to make the play, you know? I want to be a part of that. I want to be a part of the guys that protect him, so he doesn’t have to do it as often.”
Blocking for a quarterback like Murray -- someone who can stay in the pocket and throw or use his feet to make plays -- should be familiar to Johnson after blocking for No. 2 overall pick C.J. Stroud at Ohio State.
“I would say his game reflects the qualities that Kyler has ...” Johnson said. “So, that transition from going from two elite quarterbacks with two different playing styles, to having a slight blend of both with great speed and athleticism, that’s what you want as an offensive lineman. So, I’m hyped.”