Johnson Stepping Up on the Big Stage

It's no wonder James Johnson wasn't fazed by the bright lights and big stage Saturday against LSU. With 13 brothers and sisters, the Valley Center, Calif. receiver has seen enough in his young life to where his first college catch for a 17-yard touchdown confirmed what Johnson knew all along. He was ready for it.

"Not to sound cocky or anything, but it was a lot slower than I thought it would be," Johnson said Tuesday, the first day newcomers were made available to the media. "I made some fairly decent catches and was still able to run with the ball. To be honest, it was a lot easier than I thought it would be."

"Nothing surprises me with that kid," added UW Receivers Coach Jimmie Dougherty. "He carries himself like a vet and he has since the first day he stepped on campus and as long as I've known him even back in high school he was so mature and worked hard and just carried himself the right way."

Johnson led the team in catches, with six for 63 yards and that one score. "It was a great experience," he added. "It was really, honestly, a dream come true. I'm here, as a receiver, at the University of Washington, able to play the position I wanted, and I'm succeeding at it. A lot of hard work has paid off, so it was a very fulfilling day – despite the fact that we lost. I wanted to win because we've been working so hard as a team."

It was never a slam dunk that Johnson was going to be a Husky. In fact, UW was the only other school besides San Diego State to offer him as a receiver, but that only came about after Steve Sarkisian was hired at Washington.

Sarkisian made an enormous impression on Johnson, especially on his in-home visit in January. "When he came to my house, I felt it in my heart," Johnson said. "I don't know if that sounds weird, but I just got a really good feeling. I knew, once I met Coach Sark. I wasn't 100 percent sure until I got here and met the other players, all the other guys, and everybody wanted to turn everything around despite the fact that they went 12-0 the year before. Really, it was just Coach Sark. I trust him."

He admitted Tuesday that had no one looked at him for receiver, he probably would have ended up at Oregon playing defense. "All the other schools, no offense, they're good coaches, but I just didn't feel in my heart that I'd found the place that I could go and succeed at," Johnson said. "I hadn't found that until I met Coach Sark.

Dougherty, who was coaching at the University of San Diego at the time, knew all about Johnson. "I couldn't get him (to USD)," Dougherty said on Tuesday. "I said that kid's going to be special some day. Now it's pretty neat that I get to coach him. (USD) is just a 1-AA school down there and James is a special player and we couldn't recruit him."

Johnson's decision to attend Washington also fell in line with his desire to leave California. Growing up in Inglewood, Johnson saw a few of his older brothers doing the wrong things, and he didn't want to end up following their path. So he went to San Diego and moved in with another older brother, Greg Taylor, when he was in the eighth grade.

Taylor, who is the Secondary Coach at Palomar College, having played collegiately at San Diego State, took custody of James through their mother - who endorsed the move. The move took him to Valley Center, 20 miles east of Oceanside. Until his sophomore year, he was the only black kid in his school.

By that time Johnson had still never played organized football, but he was a quick learner. "I was a basketball player," he said with a smile. "I wanted to be like Ben Wallace for some reason. That's a random guy. But that's what I played, I played center because I was always the biggest guy on my team. I just played basketball."

But football became his calling card. While at Valley Center, he became the all-time leader for receiving yards in the San Diego section (2,930), catching 57 passes for 1261 yards and 17 touchdowns his senior season.

Yet, when it came to colleges, only the Aztecs and Huskies wanted Johnson on offense. "I'm not sure why that happened, because I saw the special factor of him being a competitor and how hard he worked with his teammates – I saw that and knew that he was special in that manner, in that sense," Dougherty said. "And obviously the talent level was off the charts too: basketball player, great athlete. So the sky's the limit for the kid, no doubt about it. And he's going to keep working hard."

"He's not going to let any of this go to his head. The fact that he played well in his first collegiate game, he's just going to keep getting better, he's not going to let himself slide."

Taylor, who is also Johnson's biggest mentor, had a game with Palomar Saturday, so he couldn't be in attendance to watch his kid brother. "He didn't really say anything," Johnson said when asked about Taylor's thoughts. "He just said really just continue to keep getting better and don't just catch six, catch 12 and score two touchdowns. So just tell me to keep my nose to the grindstone and continuously keep working hard and stay humble and hungry."
Notes:
Offense Gets On Track: After a rough start Tuesday to the team period, with plenty of dropped passes, Sarkisian got the offense in a huddle and clearly was trying to get them more motivated, more energized than they had shown during the first part of the team period. The offense then went on a stretch of five plays in a row they won, with Jake Locker completing passes to James Johnson, Chris Polk, Johri Fogerson and Devin Aguilar, followed by a successful run around right end from Polk.

With each successful play, the offense's whoops and hollers became louder and louder. Reserve QB Taylor Bean started up a couple of chants before each play. It was fun to watch the offense having some fun for a change.

Wood, Noble Make OL Switch: After seeing them working with the OL service team last week, it became official Monday that Craig Noble and Nick Wood would be moving from the defensive line to the offensive line, a move to boost the athleticism of the offensive line and also to shore up depth concerns after the injuries to Skyler Fancher and Terence Thomas.

"I'm pretty happy to do it," Wood said on Tuesday. "Obviously we were lacking some depth on the o-line, so I made the transformation. It's been a week, so I'm still learning everything. It's going pretty well."

Wood didn't play any OL at Poway HS. He did play some fullback and blocking TE on offense, but he was mostly known as a bruising defensive tackle, earning All-CIF San Diego section defensive lineman honors in 2006.

On thing that is helping him get a leg up is his knowledge of the defense. "I know a lot of what's going on on the other side of the ball and what works, so that helps me out," the 6-foot-3, 275-pound Wood said. The offensive coaches are looking at center/guard for Wood right now.

The biggest things isn't schemes," he added. "I know all that. But you have to be able to identify who is who and call out where the line is going, especially on the inside. Since I've only been playing two weeks I'm kind of having a hard time. But I'm picking it up fast."

Wood admitted that UW Head Coach Steve Sarkisian had approached him after spring football about a potential switch. "We were thinking I was going to be able to play defense all year, but you never know when injuries are going to happen," he said. "We can't be going out there with less than 10 offensive linemen that are ready to play.

Post-spring, Wood worked diligently with UW Strength and Conditioning Coach Ivan Lewis and lost 20 pounds. It was done with the idea of staying on the defensive line. "Ivan came and did a great job with us, so I ended up losing a lot of weight and I was moving well," he said. "Even in camp I was moving really well."

Don't expect Wood to start packing weight back on, just because he's moved to the other side. "As long as I'm running fast, which I am, and I'm still strong, I should be OK," he said.

Injury Report: Darrion Jones and Jason Wells were using the stationary bike. Will Shamburger was running stairs.

Kicking Update: Erik Folk was 4-4 on Tuesday, with a long of 40.

In the Crowd: Former UW defensive lineman Jabari Issa was at Tuesday's practice.

This Week's Husky Legend: Former UW QB and current Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach Marques Tuiasosopo will be the Husky Legend introduced after the third quarter of Saturday's game with Idaho.


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