Johnson, a former standout lineman at West Virginia, admits that the move from a primarily zone blocking scheme adds complexity to what his players must learn and execute. However, he emphasizes that it's the basic techniques, and their successful execution, that are the building blocks for any system.
"Whether you do zone schemes or man blocking or gap schemes, it still comes down to man on man," said Johnson, who brings to mind a college professor as he enumerates his points. "At some point in time, no matter what scheme you are using, you are going to be engaged with a guy, and that's what you have to coach. It's the basic fundamentals of the drive block: how you sustain it, and how you maintain your leverage on your man so we can have a successful play. Those are all transferable to any style of blocking that you do, and that's what we work on every day."
That sort of work isn't very exciting of course, and during spring drills it's not the first thing that grabs attention. Shifty runs or long passes naturally grab the eye, so the work of the line, in the shadow of the Puskar Center, often goes unnoticed. It's just that work, however, that's the first step in making an offense that is consistent, and that can sustain drives and convert makable third downs.
The fact that West Virginia is rebuilding much of its offensive line is a two-way street. There is some, but not a great deal, of playing experience up front, so every snap is vital in the building process. However, many of those same players do have practice background in the zone scheme, thus the addition of new schemes is a natural progression. Add in the fact that for the first time in four years, WVU has the same offensive line coach returning for a second season, and there is reason for optimism.
Johnson has seen improvement already, but cautions that the learning process is a long one. When spring begins, linemen go to Step 1 of the offensive lineman's handbook.
"You just have to go back to square one when you have a lot of holes to fill," Johnson explained. "That's what spring is about – the fundamentals. Not only do you have to know who to block, you have to know how to block them. We've started from ground zero. The stance. How you get into the stance. Where your hands should be. Where your eyes should be. We coach every single detail that we can. We're just trying to develop and develop and develop."
Johnson also has something of a unique take on the battle between his players and the defenders they are trying to block. It's something that is apparent, once considered, but isn't mentioned a great deal in the match-up in the trenches.
"In my mind, when we are engaged with the defensive linemen, we are losing the athletic battle. Those guys are always going to be more athletic than we are. So if our technique and fundamentals aren't right on, we are going to get beat, because we aren't as good an athlete as any of the guys on defense. That's a constant battle that we always have.
"So, that attention to technique and detail is there in everything we do. We do it in our meetings, in our individual time, and in the weight room, Mike Joseph has one of his assistants devoted to the offensive line, so we lift and do agilities with that in mind. Everything we do is to develop them and their techniques."
To execute those basics, Johnson wants players with a handful of vital characteristics.
"I want guys with intelligence, because that's very important. And I want players who can develop and have a drive to be better. I talk to them about being a carpenter – a craftsman. Someone that takes pride in his work and in what they do. With those kinds of guys, with good character guys, we can be successful."