AUSTIN — Junior linebacker Gary Johnson did not receive an offer from Tom Herman’s coaching staff until January 4th. At that point, the Dodge City C.C. four-star had offers from West Virginia, Georgia, Ohio State, TCU, and Auburn to name a few.
Johnson’s offer was not the first time he had paid attention to Texas either. On Tuesday, Johnson said that he watched UT’s loss to Kansas last year. After the game, Johnson “pretty much didn’t know what to think.”
At that point, Johnson’s life had just undergone a major shakeup. Johnson was an Alabama commit, but parted ways with the Crimson Tide on October 30, 2016. The top JUCO linebacker in the country needed to find a new place to play.
Luckily for both Johnson and the Longhorns, he found one.
“It was pretty difficult,” Johnson said about having to start the recruiting process over. “Once I set aside the schools that I was interested in and took my visits, it was pretty much obvious that Texas was the place for me.”
Johnson had previous contact with defensive coordinator Todd Orlando when he held the same position at the University of Houston. Orlando revealed Wednesday he wanted Johnson at Houston, but admitted he was looking for a program with a slightly bigger name.
“When we got here from Houston, he was actually on the board of guys that the half-staff was here recruiting,” Orlando said. “I said ‘oh, I know that guy.’ Somebody actually reached out to him, and the second I called him up and I said ‘I’m at Texas.’ He was like ‘I want to visit.’”
Johnson visited Austin within 10 days of his offer, committed to Texas within a week of his visit, and signed less than two weeks after committing.
Part of why Johnson chose Texas was because the Rover position in Orlando’s defense. It was a position that allowed him to unleash his athleticism. “That was something that I could see myself playing,” Johnson said.
Johnson has used that athleticism well in action this year, making an appearance in all nine games and starting three. He has tallied 32 total tackles, 2.5 TFLs and a sack from his spot at Rover, often knifing through holes in the offensive line to meet ball-carriers in the backfield.
But for the JUCO product, it’s not so much about position as it is about effort.
“I’m just doing what I came here to do,” Johnson said. “Whatever scheme he puts in front of me, I try to execute the best that I can.”
Johnson played early in the year, but with many of the snaps on special teams. As the year progressed, so did Johnson, and he started to see more action on first, second, and third downs.
“With Gary, it was simply making sure that he paid his dues,” Orlando said. “I said that the very first time I was in here, we’re not going to reward guys until they do things collectively at a high percentage all the time. When he started doing that is when we started putting him on the field more, and then eventually he’s where he’s at right now.”
Johnson likely has traversed one of the more difficult paths to Texas. From Douglas, Alabama to Dodge City, Kansas, Johnson knows he has taken quite the journey. He laid out part of what he’s gone through in a Twitter post from May 2016. A year after that post, he was set to enroll at the University of Texas to study youth and community studies.
“It was a pretty hard step coming from high school to junior college, but it made me mature fast enough to know that I had to do what I had to do, and get to the next level,” Johnson said. “That’s what I did.”
The junior college experience is much different than the Texas high school football experience that many of his teammates have. When asked if his teammates knew how great their high school experience was, Johnson answered with an honest evaluation of both his teammates and himself.
“They do,” Johnson said. “But they did what they had to do out of high school. I didn’t.”
Johnson’s Power 5 experience is just nine games at this point. Instead of being shocked at the change from junior college to Division 1, Johnson has taken everything in stride.
“Once I got here, it was exactly what I thought it would be: faster and more physical,” Johnson said. “Everything happened so fast once I got here. I just had to do what I had to do.”
Even in a new spot, Johnson has kept the confidence and tenacity that has him lining up for the Longhorns on Saturdays.
“I’m a pretty good football player,” Johnson said. “I can only go up and not down, but I’m not to my full potential yet.”