PROPHETSTOWN – Clayton Johnson will take the mound in 2021 for a Big Ten squad.
The Erie-Prophetstown pitcher signed a National Letter of Intent on Wednesday to pitch for Illinois. Wednesday was the first day of the signing period for baseball players graduating from high school in 2020.
“First of all, they had my major of interest: they’re a very good agriculture school,” Johnson said. “I’ve been going to their camps since I was 11 or so, so I’ve been really familiar with their coaching staff and facilities. It’s always been my dream to go there, and it just happened to work out that how I’ve matured and developed, my work ethic, I just fell in love with it, and the coaching staff is a great coaching staff. They really encourage development there, so that’s what stuck out to me.”
As a junior in 2019 for the Panthers, Johnson won four games and recorded a 2.61 ERA and .146 batting average against.
Johnson struck out 57 in 35 innings on the mound for an Erie-Prophetstown team that won a regional title.
“He’s worked really hard,” Erie-Prophetstown baseball coach Brad Tichler said. “He came in as a freshman and he’s put in a lot of time working on his mechanics during the high school season and the summer baseball season. Good off-speed. He should do well. He’ll continue to work hard down at U of I.”
Johnson can mix a curveball and slider in with a fastball that hits the upper 80s.
For Illinois, it is a nine-member recruiting class this year, of which Johnson is one of five pitchers.
“Another class I’m really excited about,” Illinois baseball coach Dan Hartleb said. “We’ve got a lot of guys that have gained national attention that we have been able to identify guys early in the process that are really good players that continue to get better.”
Johnson, at 6-foot-6, is part of a tall group of future Illini pitchers. Hartleb joked before Wednesday’s press conference that his team could scrimmage against Brad Underwood’s Illini basketball team. Andrew Hoffmann, a transfer from John A. Logan Community College, is 6-5. Tucker Shalley from Grafton is 6-4. Jack Crowder out of Plainfield East is 6-4.
“The size is interesting,” Hartleb said. “You get a lot of different opinions on size with pitchers. You have longer levers and throwing downhill. Those are all things that some people like. Some people say when you get size, it’s more difficult to repeat delivery. We went after these guys because they’re good pitchers. We went looking for guys that will pound the strike zone and get people out.”
Johnson visited Purdue and had been recruited by Eastern Illinois, Ball State and Northern Illinois, but the Fighting Illini were always his first choice.
In Champaign, Johnson will be part of the first team to make use of the Susan and Clint Atkins Baseball Training Facility, an $8 million, 26,000-square foot training facility for Illini baseball set to be completed in time for the 2021 season.
“Their field is just beautiful,” Johnson said. “Everybody seems like they want to be there. It just seems like a great environment.”
At Illinois, Johnson will be a teammate of a pair of other Three Rivers players. Cam McDonald is a utility player for the Illini, and Ty Rybarczyk will pitch at Illinois after transferring from Parkland College. Both used to play for Hall.
“I’m kind of familiar with them. They come from kind of a similar background,” Johnson said. “Cam McDonald, he’s doing great down there. Hopefully Ty does too. I’m looking forward to being on the same team as them.”
Johnson will have his senior year with the Panthers to continue to hone his craft before heading to Champaign. The graduations of Jacob Ryan and Josh Hammer mean that Johnson will have to take on a leadership role as well has projecting to be the ace of the Panthers’ pitching staff.
“There’s always room [to improve] for every pitcher, but I’d say mine is probably knowing what to throw,” Johnson said. “I think I have a pretty good mental game, so I just have to enrich my skills, and definitely velocity, command, off-speed.”
Clayton Johnson file
High School: Prophetstown
Travel team: Chitown Cream
Family: parents Tara and Reid Johnson, siblings Dena and Liam
2019 stats: 2.61 ERA, 35 IP, 57 K, .146 BAA