Billed as an instant-impact contributor and the nation’s top inside linebacker among junior college prospects in the 2017 recruiting class, Gary Johnson lived up to all the hype during his first season on the 40 Acres.
Now, with Malik Jefferson off to the NFL, Johnson is set to step into a full-time starting role for the Texas Longhorns next season and fill the leadership void left by Jefferson’s departure.
Johnson didn’t immediately crack the starting lineup upon his arrival in Austin as many anticipated, as he initially backed up junior Anthony Wheeler to start the season and mostly contributed on special teams. An ankle injury sustained in preseason camp was a primary culprit.
However, when defensive coordinator Todd Orlando moved to the Lightning package as the base defense for Texas, Johnson was one of the key pieces that made it work. After earning his first start against Kansas State, Johnson became a staple in the starting lineup against Baylor and remained in that role for the remainder of the season.
Entering the Texas Bowl against Missouri, Johnson was second on the team in run stuffs with 12, behind only Jefferson. In that statistic, which tracks rushes stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage, Johnson tripled Wheeler’s production.
After leading the Longhorns with 10 tackles in the Texas Bowl, along with a quarterback hurry and a pass break up, Johnson finished the season fourth on the team with 60 tackles.
Late in the year, he only got better — the West Virginia game saw him earn conference Co-Defensive Player of the Week honors after he recorded seven tackles, a sack, a forced fumble, and a quarterback hurry against the Mountaineers. His signature play came on a strip-sack in the fourth quarter that showcased his speed and motor to help secure the road victory. Against Texas Tech, Johnson again recorded seven tackles, along with 2.5 tackles for loss, a career high, and a quarterback hurry.
A look at his season highlights reveals a player who still possesses the 10.59 100m speed that made him a state champion in Alabama — his sideline-to-sideline range was equal to or exceeded that of Jefferson, who is also a freak athlete.
With Orlando’s scheme allowing Johnson to roam relatively free of blockers in his face, he was able to diagnose plays and shoot through openings to become extremely disruptive as a run stopped and a blitzer. Expect more of that next season as Orlando devises more ways to deploy his playmaking linebacker.
As a summer enrollee who was listed at 211 pounds when he signed with Texas and played around 220 pounds last season, Johnson should also benefit from a full offseason in Yancey McKnight’s strength and conditioning program. After all, he was a player who Naashon Hughes said “looked a little hungry” when he showed up in Austin last year.
Off the field, Johnson is arguably one of the hungriest players on the team when it comes to pursuing success on the field — he knows it was a difficult journey to make it out of his small town in Alabama and doesn’t want to go back. That desire makes him an ideal candidate to assume the leadership role now vacated by Jefferson’s departure.
In the Texas Bowl, Johnson certainly demonstrated that he’ll be able to make up for the loss of Jefferson with his playmaking as he grows into a bigger role as one of the key leaders on Orlando’s defense.