During Christmas break, Texas Longhorns defensive coordinator Todd Orlando devoured film of his new unit.
By the time he was finished with his in-depth evaluation, he realized one thing — Texas needed a linebacker who could come in and contribute immediately.
Orlando went to head coach Tom Herman with his plan to target the nation’s top junior college linebacker.
On January 4, the staff extended an offer to Gary Johnson, an Alabama native playing at Dodge City CC in Kansas. The nation’s No. 5 prospect in the junior college ranks seemed like a long shot for Texas since he held offers from some of the nation’s top programs.
Nine days later, however, Johnson visited. A week after that, he committed, giving the Longhorns a key piece of the 2017 recruiting class. In fact, the 6’0, 211-pounder was arguably head coach Tom Herman’s most important addition after arriving in Austin in late November.
So it was no surprise to hear Herman gushing about the 6’0, 211-pounder on National Signing Day.
“What a phenomenal athlete Gary Johnson is, too,” Herman said. “He's a hammerhead. He loves to hit, and you feel it when he hits you. He can fill the A and B gaps and make a ton of plays at the line of scrimmage.”
Johnson is indeed a hard hitter and physical presence despite his lack of ideal size for the linebacker position. The Big 12 is a spread league that often relies on speed over size, which makes Johnson a natural fit as a former high school sprinter.
When discussing Johnson, Herman related the story of Johnson declining to use the track blocks every other sprinter was using in the 100m state championship in Alabama. The product of Douglas promptly won the race in 10.59 seconds, an impressive time for a player weighing over 200 pounds.
Tom Herman told a story today about No. 1 juco LB and Horns' signee Gary Johnson running a 10.59 100-meter w/o blocks. Here is that video. pic.twitter.com/KRdf2HnP8X— Jeremy Crabtree (@jeremycrabtree) February 2, 2017
The pressing question since Johnson’s commitment has been whether he could replace junior Malik Jefferson on the inside, as the state’s former No. 1 prospect has been playing out of position at middle linebacker over the last two seasons.
Since Herman has been vocally on record about his refusal to watch film on Johnson, it’s Orlando who has the best sense of whether Johnson can occupy that role.
However, it does require a great deal of knowledge — Orlando said in an appearance on the Longhorn Network that middle linebacker is one of the two most demanding positions in his defense.
And while Johnson can use his speed to fill gaps and make plays coming downhill, there isn’t any film evidence from his highlight reels that he can consistently take on and defeat blockers in the hole, the area where Jefferson has struggled most significantly.
A better bet at middle linebacker may be to keep Jefferson at that position and work on his technique beating blocks since he has the leadership ability to handle the pre-snap demands of the defense. A spring spent working in the system should only benefit him.
That would allow Johnson to play next to Jefferson and avoid cluttering up an already-loaded depth chart of edge rushers, a list that includes Breckyn Hager, Malcolm Roach, Jeffrey McCulloch, and Erick Fowler.
Still, even if Johnson is not able to provide an immediate upgrade in the middle, his sideline-to-sideline range, playmaking ability in the passing game, and hard-hitting nature ensure favorable projections under Orlando.
Texas already has a Predator and a Shark at the position. Now it has a Hammerhead, too.
Gary Johnson will come to Texas with high expectations
Get to know Gary Johnson, the speedy, "hammerhead" signee Tom Herman raved about on Wednesday.Posted by Burnt Orange Nation on Thursday, February 2, 2017