NORMAN – This was Will Johnson's last chance. He had scuttled away any opportunities out of high school with a sub-par GPA, and he had no offers on the table. Johnson left Baltimore, a troubled city in its own right, for upstate New York and Monroe Community College, just a handful of miles east of Niagara Falls and the Canada-U.S. border.
When he speaks about it now, it’s almost like he was fed up with himself at that point.
Johnson, who graduated high school with a 1.9 GPA but said he hasn’t had anything lower than 3.5 since, was an unknown November addition to the Sooners’ 2015 class almost two years ago. He was a bit of an afterthought, considered by most to be just a depth addition even though he was a Top-100 junior college player.
Then, that “back-against-the-ropes” mentality showed itself again.
Johnson made himself essential, playing his way into the starting lineup and breaking up a bubble screen on his first play that head coach Bob Stoops still brings up today. He started the last three games of the season at nickel back for Oklahoma and comes into his redshirt junior season playing full-time nickel back and weak-side linebacker, despite weighing just 192 pounds.
Johnson is listed as a safety, came to Oklahoma as a corner but meets in the linebacker room with Jordan Evans and Ogbonnia Okoronkwo. He’s really just a football player and one who has become indispensable for Oklahoma.
“I just try to hold myself to a high level no mater who I’m playing with,” Johnson said. “I just think consistency and showing that I care, that made them want to give me a shot. It just kind of rolled from there.”
Johnson was offered on the Sunday of his official visit two years ago, after watching the first half of Oklahoma’s record-setting victory against Kansas and hiding from the rain in the second half.
He accepted the Sooners’ offer that same afternoon.
Now, he’s working on his pass-rushing skills, the one thing lacking in his versatile repertoire, with Okoronkwo. Johnson probably didn’t know it when he came to Oklahoma, but he might be the Sooners’ most important pass rusher this year – providing a counter to Okoronkwo.
Speed rushing won’t be a problem for the converted cornerback. He’s working on using his hands, counter moves and learning where he has help from his defensive linemen. Coverage skills at linebacker weren’t difficult for Johnson, who said he just thinks of the cornerback’s responsibility and does the supplement to that.
“His productivity is really high, one of the best we have out there,” Stoops said. “I think this year he’s gonna surprise a lot of people. He’s a really good football player. Our offensive coaches: He gives them more fits, maybe, than anybody. He has a chance to be really good.”
Stoops is right.
Just ask Lincoln Riley.
“He just gets things,” Riley said. “He makes plays that he shouldn’t make schematically because he’s so smart. . . . He’s so valuable. He’s like a linebacker, a safety and a corner all in one. Those guys are hard to find. Then to find a guy that can mentally process all that ability at a high level, at least from my perspective, if we were playing our defense, he’s one of those guys that you have to have tabs on.”
Football smarts have never been Johnson’s issue. He played quarterback for 12 years up until his senior year in high school. It helps in his knowledge of receiver spacing and route combinations.
That 1.9 GPA seems to be pretty far in the rear-view mirror.
Johnson’s football acumen and his intelligence on the field seems to be his greatest asset – that’s including his astonishing versatility and his toughness at the line or scrimmage.
All of that will come in handy against Houston and the barrage of up-tempo spread offenses on Oklahoma’s schedule that look for any weakness in a defense. Johnson gives Oklahoma at least one player who has a minimal number of weak spots.
“His versatility is very, very good,” said Oklahoma middle linebacker Jordan Evans, who also played defensive back in high school. “He can go cover, come off the edge and fill run gaps. Even last year, he was a guy that kind of went unnoticed. He made a lot of plays; a lot of plays that he saved me on.”
Johnson first learned that he’d be playing more SAM linebacker like everyone else, through reports in the media. He’d been running reps there but didn’t know if he would be in the long-term plans last spring.
He knew that Oklahoma was bringing in a larger number of linebackers who specialized in rushing the passer. Caleb Kelly was a five-star freshman. Kapri Doucet and Emmanuel Beal had made a name for themselves rushing the passer in junior college.
All of them played Johnson’s new position.
“I didn’t know exactly what their plans were for me,” Johnson said. “I was ready to just go for the team, no matter what. If I had to play only nickel, I would play it. I’m definitely happy for a bigger role. I just want to do whatever the team wants me to do.”