Coach Fran — that’s short for Coach Franchise — is building something special at Imani Christian Academy.
LaRoi Johnson, who picked up his nickname as a standout basketball player in high school, has taken a team that won four games in three seasons prior to his arrival to a place where championship aspirations are openly voiced.
The Saints, who improved to 4-6 a year ago in Johnson’s first season, can dream big because they possess a couple of big-time talents in junior Dayshaun Burnett and sophomore David Davis. Both boast scholarship offers from multiple Power Five schools.
“A lot of people, they spend their lifetime trying to coach one player like that. I’m lucky now to have two of them,” Johnson said.
Burnett, a 6-2, 225-pound (and growing) four-star recruit, has offers from Penn State, Pitt, Michigan and Michigan State, among others, and projects as a linebacker or defensive end. Davis (6-0, 180) is earlier in his recruitment process but already has offers from Penn State (his first), Pitt, West Virginia, Kentucky and others. He is listed as an athlete by the major recruiting services.
Brian Dohn, a national recruiting analyst for 24/7 Sports, has seen Burnett twice in person in the past year.
“It’s interesting to see how the body changes and develops. The kid is wildly talented,” Dohn said. “The first time I saw him I thought ‘wide receiver.’ Then I saw him last month, I looked at him and thought OK, ‘linebacker.’ ”
“Fast and physical” is how Burnett describes himself, though he acknowledges as he gets bigger in the weight room he needs to ramp up his physicality accordingly to become the best version of himself.
Said Johnson, “If I were to say what I want, I want him to knock somebody’s teeth in their mouth.”
Burnett played quarterback on offense last year, but Johnson said he plans to move him around this season to showcase “all of his skill set.” He has been working at wide receiver in the summer. The possibilities are even greater on defense, where he is growing into a more instinctual player.
“Probably by the end of the season, he plays almost every position on the defense,” Johnson said. “That’s how athletic the kid is.”
Davis, who played running back last year, will also move out to wide receiver and line up in the slot this season. On defense, he will slide over from corner and play more at safety.
“He can move. … He can run in the 4.4’s. That’s legit,” Johnson said. “To have an athlete with that kind of speed is a little bit different.”
The first day Davis lined up at running back this summer, he broke off a 30-yard run, Johnson said, praising his blend of speed and instincts.
Dohn saw Davis for the first time last month at a camp at Shady Side Academy and came away impressed with his coverage skills as a defender.
“To me, it was just his ability to open up his hips and run with the receiver,” Dohn said. “He was able to drive on the ball. You figure you’ll continue to see him develop.”
The Saints are young and talented, losing just two seniors from last year’s team. They have six this season on a roster of 29, up from 17 a year ago.
“Good group of guys coming back,” Johnson said. “Guys who’ve faced some pain and some adversity in their time and I think they’re ready to take the next step.”
Johnson, 38, came to Imani from Sto-Rox where he compiled a 37-9 mark in four seasons and twice made the WPIAL championship game. Prior to that he spent two seasons as Imani’s offensive coordinator. In 2017, his last season, the Saints went 11-3 before losing in the WPIAL championship game.
“Coach Fran is one of the best coaches I ever played for,” said Davis, a 3.8 GPA student from Wilkinsburg with three brothers and three sisters, all younger, including a brother on the team. “He taught me everything I know now. He loves this game. I love him to death.”
Said Burnett, “He saw something in me I didn’t even see in myself.”
A leader by example naturally, Burnett has become more vocal with his teammates this summer, knowing who needs to be pushed and when, Johnson added.
Soft-spoken off the field, Burnett, a 4.0 student whose father, Jimmy, is a math teacher at Imani, is someone you’d “want your daughter to date,” Johnson said. The family just moved his older sister to Albany State in Georgia, where she is a freshman.
Johnson, a Peabody High School graduate, played football at California (Pa.) for two years before transferring to Malone University in Canton, Ohio. He went on to a nine-year professional career as a tight end in the Arena Football League and Indoor Football League.
Seven years removed from his playing days, Johnson’s shadow looms over this team. Walking up to a practice with five or six coaches on the field, there’s no doubt who’s in charge. Johnson is no delegator. He moves from group to group, offering hands-on instruction with doses of encouragement audible from across the field.
Johnson knows what he has in Burnett and Davis, but to the team he emphasizes the collective while embracing the expectations. At summer camp, in a remote area of Butler County, Johnson leads the Saints in a cheer: “No egos! No superstars! State champs!”
“We got a goal this year — state champs, nothing else,” Davis said.
“Championships. Championships,” Burnett said matter-of-factly. This comes from a player whose team won two games when he was a freshman and four as a sophomore.
Before championships can be won, Imani needs to post a winning record. “We’ll win a lot more this season,” Johnson promised. Still, real questions remain.
Quarterback is unsettled with Burnett vacating the position, and Johnson has not decided on a starter. Burnett and Davis will play all over the field, but someone must get them the ball. Experience and depth are lacking even if talent is not.
The Saints, in their second season in Class 2A, won’t wonder for long how good they are. They open against defending Class 1A state champion Steelton-Highspire Aug. 26 in a neutral location at York.
Imani Christian Academy is a 30-year-old private school located in the East Hills neighborhood of Pittsburgh with about 165 students. Many come from difficult circumstances, in single-parent homes or under the care of a guardian.
“I call it a dream school,” said Johnson, who went to Peabody but grew up about two minutes from the Imani campus. “We dream around here. We dream very big around here. We try to put our kids in position to achieve those dreams on every side of the track, whether it’s academic, social or spiritual.”
Still, it’s not the first school that comes to mind when the talk is about state championships. Or the consensus No. 1 junior linebacker in the state in Burnett.
Johnson had a feeling though.
“I just know that with the passion I have for the game and the passion that the community has for the game — I know we could do something special, and I think we got a shot at it this year.”