Before he grew into the hulking 6-1, 238-pound linebacker who stopped Georgia Tech quarterback Tevin Washington on fourth-and-inches in overtime of Saturday’s thrilling come-from-behind win for the Miami Hurricanes, redshirt freshman Eddie Johnson had to tackle the biggest obstacle so far in his football career.
Gwendolyn Johnson says it took a lot of convincing before she finally gave her baby boy permission “at age 7 or 8” to finally put on pads and get in the game. By then, though, all of her safety-first lessons had left a big imprint on her son.
“I’ll never forget his first game,” said Gwendolyn, a proud mother of three who works in insurance and says she’s never missed one of her son’s games (she even drove 15 hours from the family home in Selma, Ala., to Manhattan, Kan., to make sure she was there for Eddie’s first college start three weeks ago against Kansas State). “Eddie was on defense and this little boy got the ball and started running for the end zone. Eddie got right behind him and everybody starts screaming, ‘Eddie tackle him, tackle him.’ That boy ran 50, 60 yards and Eddie didn’t do anything.
“After the game I asked him ‘Eddie why didn’t you catch him?’ He said, ‘Mama, you always told me don’t fall and get my knees hurt.’ I said, ‘Boy, next time you get on that field you better catch him.’ Eddie’s been catching them ever since.”
Second on the team with 24 tackles, Johnson was named the ACC’s Linebacker of the Week on Monday after he registered a career-high nine tackles against the Yellow Jackets, including arguably the biggest stop of the season when smacked Washington to the turf just a few feet away from the end zone. Mike James then scored the winning touchdown two plays later.
“His job was exactly what he did,” defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio said. “His job was to sit on the line of scrimmage and watch the quarterback. If the quarterback cut it in, he had to go hit him. If the quarterback pitched it, he had to run down the line and try to make a tackle. Eddie just did what he was supposed to do.”
Johnson, who was committed to Louisville throughout most of his recruiting process and didn’t switch over to UM until he got an offer shortly before National Signing Day in 2011, wasn’t always a player who did what he was supposed to do last year as a true freshman. Even though physically he might have been ready to contribute (Johnson bench presses 400 pounds and runs a 4.6 in the 40), D’Onofrio said Johnson had to mature mentally.
“There’s been a big evolution,” D’Onofrio said.
Linebackers coach Micheal Barrow said that evolution for Johnson “was just a matter of trusting his coaches,” and UM’s coaches finding a way to connect with him.
“You got to understand who you’re coaching and what buttons to push to get the best out of them,” Barrow said. “At times, I wanted to call 1-800 Dr. Phil and kind of get some advice. Now our relationship is so much better, and he’s playing better. At the core of our relationships, kids don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. When kids realize you care, they’ll lay on a barb-wire [fence] for you.”
Johnson doesn’t need to be convinced anymore how much his coaches care for him. His teammates say he’s shown it week to week with his effort on game days and in the film room. The next step, D’Onofrio said, is “becoming a great practice player too.”
“He’s been relentless, just going hard every play, every down,” cornerback Brandon McGee said. “Even on special teams, that guy is really giving his all. Since Denzel [Perryman] went down, he’s really stepped up in a major way.”
Said UM coach Al Golden: “He’s playing as hard as anyone on our defense right now. He’s finishing at a level which is tremendous, knocking piles back. He’s not getting a lot of mental errors, so I know he’s bright. He prepares.”
Barrow said Johnson reminds him a lot of former Canes linebacker D.J. Williams, an eventual NFL first-round pick still with the Denver Broncos, because of how physically he plays the game. Teammates say there are times in practice when they have to tell Johnson to settle down because he’s hitting too hard.
“He’s physical and just nasty,” Barrow said. “He tries to hit somebody like they stole his bike.”
With three starts now under Johnson’s belt, the Canes (3-1, 2-0 ACC) will once again look to him on the strong side to provide leadership and toughness when they host N.C. State (3-1, 0-0) at noon Saturday at Sun Life Stadium.
The Wolfpack aren’t nearly as formidable on offense as Georgia Tech. They’re averaging just 20.7 points per game against Football Bowl Subdivision teams and rank 83rd in rushing offense, 53rd in passing offense, 76th in total offense and 63rd in scoring out of 120 teams. N.C. State has also given up 14 sacks in four games.
Johnson, though, said he isn’t going to get overconfident. Last week, he said he chose UM because he wanted to be a part of the first team to win the Coastal Division and create “a new legacy” at linebacker. As long as he stays focused, his coaches believe Johnson could accomplish both.
“He can’t get bored. He can’t get complacent,” D’Onofrio said. “We’ll make him as good as he wants to be. And he can be pretty darn good.”