He just didn’t realize that future would arrive so soon.
Johnson, the former Ole Miss defensive end/linebacker, recently wrapped his first season as a defensive line assistant at East Mississippi Community College. Johnson started 37 games in his Rebel career, finishing with 148 total tackles, 27 tackles for loss and 13.5 sacks over five seasons.
“The transition’s been almost seamless, just for the simple fact that I knew I wanted to get into coaching right after I was done playing ball,” Johnson said.
Johnson signed with the New England Patriots as a free agent following the 2016 NFL Draft. However, he was unable to practice with the team following his recovery from emergency hernia surgery — a procedure he underwent three weeks before the three-day draft. After nine weeks, the Patriots cut him.
But Johnson was prepared. He immediately called his high school head coach, Teddy Dyess, as well as Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze — both of whom are friends with EMCC head coach Buddy Stephens. They put in a good word, and Stephens created a job just for Johnson.
“They had a guy, actually, already in place,” Johnson said. “They kind of just threw in a little extra deal to bring me on the staff, so the staff was really already complete. I just had to squeak in there right before the season started. I didn’t know how long New England was keeping me. I kind of had a feeling that something could go wrong. I was trying to keep a card in my back pocket in case I needed to get a job. It was a blessing for me.”
Johnson said he tries to be himself with his players. EMCC finished 11-1 last season and No. 2 in the country. The Lions closed out the year with a 27-17 win over No. 13 Kilgore (Texas) College in the Mississippi Bowl, preserving a perfect (5-0) postseason record for Stephens in his nine seasons leading the program.
“I’m really, kind of, me off the field,” Johnson said. “I try to be me and give the guys a guy who’s just done it, kind of a pretty raw perspective different from what they hear from our coaches on a day-to-day basis. I’m more of a ‘hoorah’ kind of guy. I’m always up, I’m always loud, I’m always jumping around and banging people. My job, I feel like, is I have to bring the energy, and if I bring it every day, there will be some days where our guys will be here or our leaders who are down and I’ll pick them up.”
Coaching is nothing new to Johnson. His coaches at Ole Miss often referred to him as a coach on the field due to his almost-encyclopedic knowledge of the Rebel defense. Johnson knew the assignments of every player on defense — details he picked up from regular drop-in film sessions and concept discussions with former Ole Miss defensive coordinator Dave Wommack.
“Anytime you talk about a guy who’s a coach on the field, I think the biggest thing for him is that he asks questions,” Johnson said. “I was a guy who always asked questions. In my free time, I’d always drop in coach Wommack’s office. I’d go sit in there with him and kind of talk about stuff and bounce stuff off of him because I’ve always been a football nerd, so to speak. I just love the game and kind of understand how all the pieces fit.
“My thing with coach Wommack was I could sit down with him and we’d sit there and talk about just defense. I’d ask him, ‘Coach, what do you think about when you call rover-slash? Or what do you think about when you call hawk-falcon or something like that.?’ ‘I’m thinking this, or this or that.’ So in my mind, I know if the coordinators are going to call hawk-falcon, he’s thinking pass. What type of pass that he thinks, I don’t know, but I know when he calls hawk-falcon, he’s thinking pass. Or when calls weigh-cobra, he’s thinking run. Those are the things I know, and for me as a player, when I can think that, who’s going to know better than the defensive coordinator? He’s always in the office watching film. That’s the stuff you have to learn, but you can’t know that if you don’t ask questions.”