Funny thing, stereotypes. Last year that Penn State defensive tackle Austin Johnson was typecast as a run-stuffer and blocker-occupier, the guy who minded the store while fellow tackle Anthony Zettel invaded opposing backfields.
Turns out that that’s not quite accurate. Not anymore, anyway. But it’s a heck of a lot more accurate than the way Rutgers viewed Johnson when the Scarlet Knights were recruiting the Galloway, N.J., native out of St. Augustine Prep.
They wanted him to play guard.
“Really I just didn’t want to play offense, play the offensive line in college,” he said. “I just didn’t want to play guard. … I just like playing defense. I like hitting. I’d just rather hit, move around, run – just make plays in the backfield. I just like playing defense more than I like playing offense.”
Which is one reason he ended up where he is now, as one of the key components of a Nittany Lions team that hosts RU in the Big Ten opener Saturday at 8 p.m. Both teams are 1-1.
“It definitely means a lot for me, because obviously I’m from Jersey and I want to win,” he said. “I don’t want to lose to Rutgers. … Every game’s a big game for us. Every game’s a big game for me, because I just want to win and dominate and everything. This here, I guess, is a little bit more, because last year we went there and it was a close game (that the Lions won, 13-10). This year they’re coming here. It’s going to be a little bit better atmosphere for us.”
Johnson, a 6-foot-4, 322-pound redshirt junior, is in his second year as a starter. Last season he recorded 49 tackles, six tackles for loss and a single sack. He is coming off a career-high nine-tackle effort in last week’s 27-14 victory over Buffalo, a game in which he also generated 2.5 TFL and 1.5 sacks, leaving him tied with end Carl Nassib for the team lead with 15 stops. He is second in tackles for loss (3.5) and sacks (1.5).
Johnson said he made it a focal point to get upfield more in offseason workouts, that he was intent on “Just making everything all reaction, just taking off.” That has clearly paid off now.
“Obviously I can definitely play better than what I did last year,” he said. “That’s what I’m trying to prove. I’m more than a run-stuffer. I can do a whole bunch of things. I’m very versatile. I just want to show people what I can do.”
Last year’s game against RU was a brawl, and he expects much the same this time around.
“I just like to attack every snap anyway,” he said, “but if the other team’s trying to run the ball on us and they’re trying to say they’re more dominant than us, then yeah, there’s kind of more … your manhood’s on the line, kind of like that. I guess in a sense, yeah, when a team’s trying to run the ball down your throat then yeah, I guess there’s more motivation to stop them.”
Especially against this team, from his home state.