Texas defensive coordinator Todd Orlando calls it a “run-and-hit business.” If that’s the case, the Longhorns need people who can run and hit. In that order, too.
“That’s what I like to do,” linebacker Gary Johnson said. “I like to hit people. I don’t go out to hurt anybody, but I’ll go out and hit anybody.”
Speed? Check. The Douglas, Ala., native won a high school state championship in the 100-meter dash in 2015.
Ability to hit? Check. Johnson had a school-record 215 tackles in two seasons at Dodge City Community College and became the nation’s No. 1-rated junior college linebacker recruit. In his first year at Texas, he was fourth on the team in tackles last season.
Malik Jefferson and DeShon Elliott, the team’s respective leaders in tackles and interceptions, are both gone. What’s left is a defense that needs playmakers. The Longhorns’ offense is searching for consistency, so the defense probably needs to smash heads from the get-go.
As a senior leader, Johnson needs to run and hit people.
“Back in ’05, that’s what they used to do,” Johnson said. “Derrick Johnson and those guys used to come down and put fear in guys’ hearts, and that’s what we’re trying to instill in the young guys coming in. The new culture is to hit people and light into people, over and over again.”
Can he back it up?
“Gary’s just unique,” Orlando said. “He’s going to run his mouth at times, probably a lot of times. But yeah, he does. I’ve never seen him back down from anything.”
Johnson has no reason to back down. There was a time when nobody gave him a chance. Bypassed as a high school recruit, Johnson ended up at Dodge City, a junior college with a long track record of launching players to the FBS level. Once in a Twitter post, Johnson explained his upbringing and pulled no punches there, either.
“I grew up struggling, had problems at home, I had a bad reputation for getting into trouble!,” he tweeted. “I was also that kid that every teacher said wasn’t going to make it because I was in and out of trouble.
“Moral of the story is never let anyone tell you you aren’t going to make it anything is possible make the best of it junior college isn’t what people thought it is prepares you for what the real world has in store!”
At Dodge City, Johnson was a machine, tackling everything in sight and getting 11.5 sacks (second most in school history).
That caught Alabama’s attention. The Crimson Tide offered a scholarship, and Johnson committed. But he ultimately had to back out due to SEC’s stringent transfer rules on junior college players.
Orlando was recruiting Johnson to Houston, only the player wasn’t too interested. Johnson wanted a bigger school. When Orlando arrived at Texas with coach Tom Herman, they looked at who the previous staff had been chasing. “I said, ‘Oh, I know that guy,’” Orlando said.
One phone call from Orlando, now at Texas, and the deal was practically done.
“His defense is basically dummy-proof,” Johnson said of Orlando. “There’s not a way you couldn’t understand this defense. When we’re in meetings, he has his jokes every now and then, but he’s about business. He helps us every way possible.”
Last spring, Herman raved about Johnson’s potential. Asked point-blank if Johnson could be a star, Herman said, “Yes, he’s really good.
“There’s never been a great inside linebacker that you’ve said, ‘Wow, his finesse-game is awesome!’ It doesn’t happen,” Herman added. “The greatest linebackers in the history of our sport have been fierce hitters and Gary is one of those guys.”
Johnson has quite a task in the season opener. Depth is thin at linebacker due to minor injuries. Anthony Wheeler will also be suspended for the first half against Maryland for a targeting ejection in the Texas Bowl last season.
The defensive line is tasked with holding up blockers and jamming the line of scrimmage. All Johnson must do is fly around the field and do what he does best.
“He’s a big voice in our locker room,” Orlando said. “He’s a great example of energy and juice to go along with talent.”
Contact Brian Davis at 512-445-3957. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.