When Gary Johnson announced his commitment to the Texas Longhorns just days before National Signing Day in 2017, the coveted linebacker, who was once pledged to Alabama, immediately inherited some lofty expectations. Some of the expectations he’s since shouldered in burnt orange came courtesy of the title he carried as the top-ranked JUCO linebacker in his class; some of them from the label he’d later adopt as the heir-apparent to Malik Jefferson as the Longhorns’ Rover linebacker.
With his tenure at Texas now up for evaluation, it’s safe to say Johnson filled those shoes exceptionally.
A team-leading 90 tackles and 16.5 tackles for loss later, along with 6.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, and one fumble recovery, Johnson capped his collegiate career as an All-Big 12 Second-Team selection, and as far as his future is concerned, an intriguing NFL prospect.
“It does,” Johnson said at Texas’ Pro Day when asked if his production speaks for itself. “When I put the pads on, I feel like I can be as good as any linebacker that puts the pads on.”
That NFL intrigue has only increased since the last time Johnson put the pads on.
At the NFL Combine, Johnson maybe did himself more favors than his film has, as he clocked a 4.43 40-yard dash time, which marked the second-best effort among all linebackers in this class, trailing only LSU’s Devin White (4.42), and now stands as the fourth-fastest time ever recorded by a linebacker prospect.
“After his 40-yard dash at the scouting combine, NFL teams reached out,” wrote USA Today Sports’ Jori Epstein. “Johnson visited Pittsburgh and Oakland. Representatives from each organization complimented his versatility, how he would match up against athletic tight ends and big-bodied receivers. Think a bigger hybrid dime with utility in subpackages and on special teams.”
“If that’s where they see my playing then that’s what I’ll do,” Johnson said of the potential role NFL scouts envision for him. “I’ll play whatever they want me to become; special teams, defensive back, or linebacker.”
The NFL demand for Johnson to potentially transition into a role as a hybrid dime linebacker is an intriguing option because of his blazing speed, but it’s one that’s largely necessary due to his size, or the lack thereof. At 6’0, 226 pounds, Johnson is 11 pounds lighter than the aforementioned White, for example, while he’s an inch taller, but eight pounds lighter than Michigan’s Devin Bush, an inch shorter and 14 pounds lighter than Alabama’s Mack Wilson, and three inches shorter and 27 pounds lighter than Clemson’s Tre Lamar, just to note a few comparisons.
To help counter some of the size concerns that he’s carrying into the draft, Johnson entered Texas’ Pro Day aiming to showcase his fluidity in the open field.
“I just wanted to show more drill work and field work and show guys that I can move and that I’m not stiff and things like that,” Johnson said. “You know, my height, it doesn’t really matter, along with my weight.”
“I feel like a lot of people didn’t know who I was. A lot of people slept on me and said I was too little; I was too short, I wasn’t heavy enough,” Johnson added when asked if his combine and pro day performances raised eyebrows regarding his draft stock. “My film did show that I was better than a lot of people said, but I felt like once I got to the combine, I opened a few eyes that I’m as good as anyone else out there.”
Testing well in a controlled setting helps, to be sure, but as far as the NFL is concerned, what scouts are looking for can be found in the film. To that end, Johnson’s efforts were encouraging in some aspects, while discouraging and undeveloped in others.
A high-effort, high-energy talent, Johnson is at his best when he’s able to simply attack downhill and utilize his speed and tenacity at the point of attack. Often times when he meets the ball carrier, Johnson strikes with notable force and is generally a sure tackler who doesn’t miss many, and his speed ensures that he’s in on more plays and able to recover better than other prospects at his position are able to. In short, he’s the kind of linebacker prospect who, when cut loose and playing with confidence in his assignment, has proven to be an imposing presence with the vocal leadership to help shape the rest of the defense around him.
But, it would be reasonable to expect a few years and some further development before Johnson potentially finds himself in a defense-bolstering role such as the one he shined in last season with the Longhorns.
Maybe the most notable deficiency in Johnson’s development is his inability to consistently shed blockers, which, in turn, forces him to become a non-factor at times when plays become congested around the line of scrimmage. There’s also some evidence of indecisiveness, as he may wait for gaps to come open as opposed to attacking the line of scrimmage directly. Beyond the immediate action in the trenches, Johnson doesn’t present ideal body control and lateral quickness in space, as evident by his 4.57 shuttle time, which could make him a liability at times in open space. And despite the raw speed, Johnson doesn’t yet feature much sideline-to-sideline range in terms of coverage, so that, too, will be an area where physical development and time in the film room will prove beneficial.
The same could be said for much of Johnson’s game, however, as he’s still a fairly raw and unpolished product at this point in his career in comparison to other NFL-bound prospects. For example, in high school, Johnson was ruled academically ineligible as a sophomore, and then benched as a junior after transferring. Following that stage, Johnson spent the first two seasons of his collegiate career at Dodge City C.C., removed from the type of ideal development that could have come had Johnson began at a Power 5 program as a freshman.
So in a sense, Johnson is undeniably unpolished overall, but the fact that he’s been as productive and highly regarded as an elite recruit, mostly off of his raw athleticism alone, speaks volumes of his long-term upside if he can find a fit with a patient franchise.
“There’s potential there,” said ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay, per Jori Epstein. “It wouldn’t surprise me if he continues to get better over time because he has that ability and just the raw talent.”
Few things in life have been simple for former Texas Longhorns linebacker standout Gary Johnson, both on and off the gridiron, and the same will likely be said of his path to playing time in the NFL. Based on the current projections, Johnson appears to be headed for a sixth or seventh-round selection.
Johnson doesn’t concern himself with the projections, though. He just wants his shot to play football.
“I’m not really worried about where I get drafted. I just want to live out my childhood dream of getting drafted and showing people what I can do. So I’m not really worried about where, what round, or anything like that. I just want the opportunity to hear my name called and show what I can do.”