KJ Osborn moved from Michigan to Florida to attend IMG Academy in his senor year of high school with hopes of putting himself on the map for a Division-I football scholarship. But during the recruiting process only two FBS teams were interested and one of them wanted him to switch positions from wide receiver to safety. The others didn’t know how badly he wanted it.
Meanwhile the University at Buffalo had just hired six-time champion Wisconsin-Whitewater head coach Lance Leipold with hopes of turning around a program that had been to just two bowl games since becoming Division-I in 1999. Leipold and recruiting coordinator Rob Ianello knew that they would have to find diamonds in the rough in order to put UB on the map.
In Osborn, they saw a player who led IMG in touchdowns and might have a chance to develop, so they gave him a chance.
Once he arrived in Amherst, New York, however, it was obvious they had something more than a developmental receiver.
“I don’t know if anybody in our program went about it more like a professional as far as the training, taking care of his body, the extra work, the dedication in the weight room, the film study,” Leipold said via phone several hours after Osborn was picked. “It became apparent that he was going to be one of the guys whose competitive nature and work habits that were going to help us turn our program around.”
Things around the building changed with Osborn in the program.
Leipold recalled a conversation with a linebacker who had missed time due to injury and needed to decide whether he would be red shirted and play another year or return for a half season. The player chose to stay on another year because he saw the team’s potential, starting with the freshman receiver.
“He said, ‘coach, the guys on the scout team are so competitive and dedicated, I see things here in this program that I never saw in my first three years. I know we are headed in the right direction and I’d like to stay and be a part of it as long as I can,'” Leipold said. “And I know KJ Osborn was who he was talking about as the leader of that group that was turning that culture around of work ethic, competitiveness, to build the habits that you have to do to get better each day.”
The linebacker and Leipold were right. By 2018, Osborn was part of a receiving tandem with current Pittsburgh Steeler Anthony Johnson that pushed Buffalo’s offense to nearly 35 points per game, a 10-4 record and Bowl appearance. Osborn caught 53 passes for 892 yards and returned 25 punts for 257 yards. He was used all over the field.
“He can do a lot of things,” Leipold said. “You can motion him, we run fly sweeps but we’ve also had him motion off the edge and seal the back side and he can do that. He won our pound-for-pound strongest player on our team as well. The way he embraced the weight room and physicality to help the run game but he’s also athletic and nifty enough to be elusive in the slot and be creative in the middle part of the field. His strength, his fearlessness to do the things over the middle, the shallow stuff.”
After one of the school’s best seasons, quarterback Tyree Jackson and Johnson elected to enter the NFL Draft and Osborn decided to leave as well with hopes that he could give himself a better chance to get drafted the following year.
When he left, Leipold called it a “tough pill” and said he was “in a funk” for awhile after losing a player who had meant so much to his program.
“We lost one of our best examples of how to do it,” he said.
Osborn transferred to Miami and quickly became a team captain. That caught the eye of the Minnesota Vikings, who routinely look for high character players on Day 3 of the draft or in undrafted free agency. The Vikings have hit numerous times with players like Anthony Harris, Stephen Weatherly, Bisi Johnson and Ifeadi Odenigbo — all of whom did not exactly fit the mold of NFL stars but had character elements.
“K.J. is a phenomenal kid,” director of college scouting Jamaal Stephenson said. “Any time you go from the University at Buffalo and transfer down to Miami and instantly become a leader on that team—this guy was only there for a spring and they took him to ACC Media Days as a rep for the University of Miami, so that speaks to his leadership. He’s a hardworking kid.”
With The U, Osborn didn’t just become a leader, he led the Hurricanes in receiving with 53 catches for 547 yards and was one of the nation’s most effective punt returners, gaining 15.9 yards per return.
At the Combine he proved that he was at the level of NFL athletes, running a solid 4.48 40-yard dash with a 37-inch vertical and benching 18 reps. He felt the Combine helped put him on the map to be drafted but he was largely overlooked by draft analysts. NFL.com listed him as a likely UDFA.
The Vikings, however, were on the same page about what they had seen from the former two-star recruit.
“I know [special teams coach Marwan] Maalouf really, really thought he was one of the top returners in this draft,” GM Rick Spielman said. “I know when [receivers coach] Andrew Janocko and Gary Kubiak watched him and watched his tape, along with our scouts, they felt he has some really natural ability that they can develop and that’s critical with all these guys is to get everybody on the same page….there are a lot of things, not only from a football standpoint and a potential return standpoint, but also from a quality of person he is and how much true passion he does love to play (with).”
When the Vikings picked Osborn in the fifth round on Saturday, one of his first calls was to Leipold.
“Coach Leipold is a GOAT man,” Osborn said, giving his former coach the highest compliment from Generation Z possible.
With a crowded receiving room that features a Pro Bowl No. 1 receiver in Adam Thielen, the 22nd overall pick Justin Jefferson, last year’s surprise breakout player Bisi Johnson and a myriad of others like Chad Beebe, Alexander Hollins, Dillon Mitchell and Davion Davis and a new crop of UDFAs, the competition will be stiff in training camp for spots.
Osborn knows that special teams may be his ticket.
“What I love about it is it changes the game, it’s so undervalued,” he said. “At Miami, one of the biggest things we talked about was hitting yardage, and I feel like, you know, at punt return or at kick return, there’s so much hidden yardage. Especially, I’ll give you an example, at punt return when you get big punt returns, you’re setting the offense up with great field position. It’s a big sparkplug play. It gets the sideline going. It gets the fans going. And, again, it puts the offense in really good field position. It’s hidden yardage. Over the game, you figure out how much yardage can come from punt return, that could be a whole drive. It’s a huge part of the game. I’m excited for that.”
Leipold pointed out that Osborn has played every part of special teams, not just the return element but even as a blocker and experience like that could help his case.
“He’s going know the whole playbook, he’s going to know any spot that’s asked of him once he gets settled,” Leipold said. “That’s the type of the receiver he’s going to be. My experience is that you better be able to help in [special] teams in a lot of ways and be versatile within that if you’re not a top three [receiver]. I see him as being a guy who can be versatile and play a lot of spots in somebody’s offense.”
Osborn said he is ready to pore everything into whatever role he’s assigned — which is exactly why he’s here.