It was apparent last week there were going to be some changes for the Oklahoma defense. The loss to Texas had brought to light some issues with what the Sooners were doing.
The wait wasn’t always easy for nickelback Will Johnson but his time was coming even if nobody at home was going to know about it.
Johnson said he only told one cousin that he was going to be the starting nickelback for OU’s game at Kansas State. Everybody else was just going to find out by watching on TV.
His stats in that game don’t pop out to you, but he set the tone early with a tackle for loss in the first quarter on a third down play.
Johnson was pleased with his play but maybe not as much fellow Baltimore native, senior defensive end Charles Tapper.
“I was so happy to see him go out there and dominate,” Tapper said. “I think he graded out at like 100 percent. He was doing everything that he’s supposed to do. I know I talk to guys back home, and everybody was just so happy to see Will do that because coming from his situation and all the things he went through, it’s like, wow.
“Miracles really do happen. People do prevail.”
Johnson isn’t looking for sympathy for how he got to OU. Everything he has done, he has owned up to and moved on.
He knew his Division I dream wasn’t going to happen, at least not immediately. Johnson said he had a 1.9 GPA in high school so he knew his only hope was junior college.
High school in Baltimore led him to Monroe Community College in New York, not exactly a hotbed of college football recruiting.
The ace in the hole Johnson had was Cory Robinson, his high school coach and a trainer for a lot of Baltimore area athletes. It was Robinson who first introduced Tapper to the OU coaching staff back in 2011.
Like Tapper, Johnson grew up wanting to play basketball and didn’t play football his first two years in high school.
“The first time I met Will was when he was on the football track,” Robinson said. “He had a basketball with him so I sent him home. He has, since then, obviously taken a different approach to football.”
Tapper and Johnson said it was easy to gravitate toward basketball in Baltimore because that’s all they knew. They knew kids could make it in basketball, but they never knew that same type of thing could happen in football.
Guys like Tapper and Tavon Austin have paved the way for Johnson, who is hoping he can pave the way for even more Baltimore kids in helping them realize they can achieve their dreams.
“It’s just the natural thing, just to fall off, like to almost get there and that’s always good enough to say, ‘You know, I almost went, right?’” Johnson said. “That’s just like the good enough story. Those guys are looked up to in my city – the guys who even almost made it.
“If you almost make it, that’s still an accomplishment. I just made sure I wasn’t part of that.”
It had to start in the classroom. Johnson knew that. He has been described by his teammates as one of the most focused players on the team, as somebody who is so in the zone that he can’t be bothered.
He had to teach himself how to do that academically, first. He did so, leaving junior college with a 3.0 GPA, and then it was just about OU taking a chance.
Not many people who cover recruiting on a full-time basis had even heard of Johnson before last November. It was basically one week he was a nobody, and the next week he was an OU commitment.
Johnson didn’t even have an OU offer when he went on his official visit. The OU coaches wanted to see him in person to see if he passed the eye-ball test before making the move. He did, and Johnson committed before he went back east.
“He’s grown up,” Robinson said. “He’s gone through a lot of letdowns, a lot of uncertainty. But that has helped him by building in that resilience to handle his day-to-day business and develop his character.”
His character was put to that test, though, when he arrived in Norman. He knew he could succeed, but he needed the chance. Even though he buried himself in the books and in the film room and tried to stay positive, Johnson said it was tough during the first month of the season.
It was guys like Tapper and Zack Sanchez who tried to make sure Johnson never got down about the situation.
“Will’s a hard worker,” Sanchez said. “He’s a quiet dude. He looks like he’s in the zone 24/7. He doesn’t really much. He just puts his headphones on and goes about his business. It was just a matter of time before he got a shot, and he did on Saturday.
“And I think he made the most of it. I keep saying it, but I think we found another special player in Will Johnson.”
It was a big deal in Baltimore when Tapper arrived at OU. It’s a big deal that Johnson has done the same and is starting to make his own mark.
Family and friends back home were sort of afraid to ask Johnson why he wasn’t playing during the first month of the season. He was never afraid to answer the question. And if he continues to play like he did Saturday during the second half of the season, he’ll never have to answer that one again.
“I wasn’t afraid to admit why I wasn’t playing,” Johnson said. “I’m not a guy who just believes in false advertising, I guess. I believed in myself. I believed that eventually if I got a shot, I could perform. It’s just whether I could get a shot or not.”