On Sept. 3, 2011, a Colorado State blocker cut down Johnson on the game’s opening kickoff. The resultant torn anterior cruciate ligament, suffered on Johnson’s very first play as a New Mexico Lobo, would sideline him the rest of the season.
But the unkind cuts keep coming.
Johnson, assured back in 2011 that his lost season would be restored in the form of a medical hardship waiver from the NCAA, since has learned that’s not true.
Because the UNM outside linebacker sat out the 2010 season as a redshirt, his five-year eligibility clock expires this fall. To be granted a sixth year, he would need to have missed the bulk of not one but two seasons due to injury, illness, etc.
Lobos coach Bob Davie said his staff is still working the problem, seeing if there is some way Johnson can get one more year of college football after 2014.
“I don’t know that the door is completely closed,” Davie said. “… We’re still researching, because he really needs (another year).”
Johnson knows he can’t count on that.
“(A sixth year) would help me out a lot personally,” he said after Sunday’s practice. “But … I’m still gonna play this year like it’s my last no matter what.”
That’s the attitude Davie wants to see in all his players, the third-year UNM coach said, no matter their eligibility situation. But if 2014 indeed is Johnson’s last year – for himself, his team and his future – he needs to make it his best.
Johnson, a four-star recruit out of Washington D.C.’s Dunbar High School, had scholarship offers from the likes of Michigan, Michigan State, West Virginia and Miami. He chose Maryland, in his D.C. backyard.
He spent just one spring with the Terrapins, however, before deciding to join then-head coach Mike Locksley – a D.C. native – at UNM. Because he had enrolled at Maryland, Johnson was forced to sit out the 2010 season as a redshirt.
When he finally got back on the field in the fall of 2012, after his injury, Johnson had participated in exactly one play in a span of some 33 months.
Since his return, Davie said, Johnson has yet to show the form that had all those power-conference teams drooling back in 2009.
In 2012, Davie’s first full season, Johnson played behind senior Joseph Harris at outside rush linebacker. He started at that spot last season and was productive – 45 total tackles, fifth-best on the team – but far from dominant.
“It you didn’t know he was a four- or five-star recruit, you wouldn’t see it from his performance on the field,” Davie said. “Not that he hasn’t been consistent, but … he’s a lot like we are (as a team). He has to go prove it right now.”
In the spring, Johnson was moved from outside rush linebacker to the “sam” (strong side) spot. He enters fall camp as the starter at that position.
“A lot of things are the same, but the ‘sam’ plays in space more,” he said. “I like it. I think I like it better, actually, because I love blitzing.”
At 6-foot-4 and 248 pounds, Johnson has the physical dimensions of an NFL prospect.
“He’s gonna be close to the speed they’re looking for,” Davie said. “But it’s a long way from where he is right now to be invited to that (NFL) Combine. It’s a long, long way. Right now he’s not on that list, I promise you.
“You’re brutally honest with everyone, and that’s the reality of it.”
If 2014 represents Johnson’s last chance to catch NFL scouts’ eyes, he plans to be ready.
Helping the Lobos win some games this fall, though, comes first.
Do, that, he said – this year if not next – and the NFL will take care of itself.
“When you play for somebody other than yourself,” he said, “that’s when you really experience your true talents.
“That’s my mindset going into the season, to play for somebody other than myself.”
TALKIN’ ABOUT PRACTICE: The Lobos worked out in shells – helmets, jerseys, shoulder pads, shorts – on Sunday. They’ll practice in full pads for the first time today, then will leave for their annual stay in Ruidoso.
“We’ll probably shorten practice the first day (Tuesday) in Ruidoso,” Davie said, “and probably do some scrimmaging right off the bat the first day we’re allowed to (by NCAA rules).
“We’re plodding along, but it’s pretty positive right now.”