Not much was expected from true freshman Isaiah Johnson as Syracuse prepared for the start of the 2013 season. Fans and experts alike projected him as a redshirt candidate with the potential to contribute down the road.
Then camp started. His combination of size, athleticism, and strength stood out immediately. He has already moved up the depth chart, making that redshirt thought all but disappear.
"The experience has been great," Johnson detailed. "The speed has picked up tremendously since I've been in high school. That's the only thing I really have to get adjusted to. I've got my head in the playbook. If I keep my head in the playbook, I think I'll be alright. Coach Daoust has got me with the threes and the twos right now.
"Hopefully I'll be able to move up. I'm getting more reps as the days go on. I just think I'm getting tougher and getting smarter. I'm starting to realize the little things about the defense and the little things about the defensive line, I'm starting to understand."
Johnson is humble. Everyone who has watched practice has seen his ability stick out like a sore thumb. Yet when he is asked about that, he deflects praise.
"I just have to keep improving," Johnson explained. "That's the one thing is to just keep working hard. I'm not going to say I'm doing this great or doing that great. I'm just going to say I've got to keep working hard. You can't improve everything every day. So it's just the little things to take baby steps every day. We've got three weeks until Penn State, and that's what I'm working towards now.
"We need pass rushers, so I'm just going to bring everything I have, honestly. Coach Daoust, Coach Shafe, and Coach Bullough are going to give me the tools to be successful. So I'm just going to go out there and do it."
Despite his strong start to camp, things are not coming easy to the true freshman. Johnson is still adapting to his new scheme, new teammates, and new life at the division one level.
"Honestly, the scheme is very tough right now," Johnson claimed. "It's hard to get adjusted. It's hard to do things right the first time. I'm a perfectionist so I want everything down. I want to get it down the first time. If I don't get it, I'm my worst critic. I give myself the worst criticism. It's hard but I didn't expect it to be easy when I came in here.
"So I just say to Coach Bullough, hats off to you. He's got some things up his sleeve, I'm not going to say anything, but it's just a lot we have to get down. A lot that my defensive team and I have to get done. I'm the freshman on the line so they've taken me under their wing. I really respect those guys and look up to those guys."
One of the highlights of his experience so far was during Fan Fest last week. During some of the 11-on-11 work, Johnson picked up a fumble and started rumbling towards the endzone. While he didn't score, that play could foreshadow things to come.
"It was great," Johnson admitted. "The fans were great. Everybody was into it. I picked it up, and the only thing I was worried about was don't fumble again. I've never really picked up a fumble and kept running. I almost scored. So it was a great time and I just want to thank all the fans that came out."
During the recruiting process, Johnson bonded with Scott Shafer and Tim Daoust. Since arriving on campus, he says it has been everything he expected and more. Johnson believes Daoust gets the best out of him and his teammates.
"Coach Daoust is an amazing man," Johnson declared. "He's more of a father figure right now. He makes sure we get it done and we do it one hundred percent. If we're not going one hundred percent, he pulls us out. If we're not giving it our all, he gets us back into it. He talks to us. He yells at us of course. We need that to get back into it. But he's a great guy, a great coach. He's going to give us the tools to do what we need to do.
"The ACC, Syracuse's d-line is really ranked low. So he's really challenging us to get better and get higher in that ranking list. We don't care about that list but we're just going out there and trying to get it."
With buzz growing about Johnson and what he can provide to the Orange in 2013, he remains focused on his job. Whatever role he takes, he says he is going to give his all to help make Syracuse a better football team.
"My expectation for myself is to ball out," Johnson offered. "I don't think I'm going to redshirt, but if I do, I'm going to do it to the best of my ability. If I'm on the scout team, I'll be on the scout team. I'll give one hundred and ten percent to those guys. But if I'm not and God blesses me with that opportunity, I'm going to ball out. Penn State, it's the first game and we're going to be ready.
"The d-line, they're going to get me right and get everybody else right. I'm pushing Rob and Micah for their spot. They're pushing me as well as I'm pushing them. It's a big battle and it's camp right now. So we're going hard."
Despite the coaching change that occurred in the middle of Johnson's recruiting process, Syracuse has exceeded expectations in his mind. The family atmosphere is something that can't be overlooked.
"Oh yes, no doubt," Johnson said. "Every coach brings you in with open arms. They always hug you or hand shake you and ask how you're doing. Coach Shafe, he's in the locker room 24/7 if he's not in any meetings or anything. There's a lot of love that is going on around here.
"It really is a lot of love so if any recruits want to come in and experience love, Syracuse is the place to be."