Georgia Tech’s standout DE Michael Johnson has all the ability and potential, as well as the physical tools, to become a dominant pass rusher. Johnson nearly decided to take his game to the next level after his junior campaign last season, but after weighing his options, he decided to stay with the Yellow Jackets for one more year.
Johnson has recorded 10 sacks during his career at Georgia Tech, and many project he will equal or surpass that total this season. But it’s his run defense that needs to improve. Even though Johnson isn’t the most reliable DE against the run, he’s still one of the top pass rushers in the country and a potential top-ten pick in the 2009 draft.
In this Scout.com exclusive, Chris Steuber asked Johnson about his decision to stay in school for his senior season, what he has to do to improve his run defense, if he believes he could play linebacker in a 3-4 scheme, and much more as No. 93 is revealed.
Chris Steuber: Originally you declared for the 2008 NFL Draft, but you decided to rescind your declaration. Why did you decide to return to Georgia Tech for your senior season?
Michael Johnson: My parents and I prayed on it [the decision to stay in school], and afterwards we felt at peace with the decision to stay at Georgia Tech. It just felt right.
CS: Where did the NFL advisory committee project you going in the draft if you decided to enter?
Johnson: I was given a third round grade.
CS: Was that third round grade a major factor in your decision to come back to school?
Johnson: No, because I heard from scouts that I would have been a first day selection, so after I heard that I felt comfortable that I would have been a high pick. At the time, I didn’t know that the first day was just two rounds. But the grade I received didn’t factor in at all. If I made the decision to enter the draft, I would have worked my tail off and set myself up to be selected in the best possible position. I don’t really care what’s being said about where I may go [in the draft]; I’m just going to give it all I got.
Johnson is an athletic defender who attacks on the field and off the field he wants to give back.
CS: What were the pros of staying in school versus the pros of entering the draft?
Johnson: The pros of leaving school are to realize a dream of playing at the next level a year earlier. You get to play with and against players that you watched play on Sundays for many years, and just being on that level would be a dream come true. I hope it’s something that I get to experience next year.
The pros of staying in school give me the opportunity to work towards graduation, and that’s what you come to a school like Georgia Tech for; to get a degree. I get to enjoy my last year as a senior and enjoy the atmosphere on game days. To get to enjoy another year of college is going to be great, because once you get to the next level it’s a business. People are there one day and then gone the next; you don’t have the same kind of brotherhood and camaraderie that you had in college.
CS: How important is it to you and your family for you to walk away from Georgia Tech with a degree?
Johnson: It’s very important. You don’t choose a school like Georgia Tech to not walk away with a degree. The curriculum at Tech is so challenging that it isn’t worth putting yourself through it if you didn’t plan on finishing. Not to knock any of the other schools, but we are one of only a handful of schools that if you attend, you better get your degree.
CS: You’re a management major - I’m assuming sports or business management - what do you plan on doing with that degree during or after your football career?
Johnson: My major is business management. I would like to go back to Alabama and run some type of recreation facility to train athletes. It could be an after school type of thing; it may even present an opportunity to do some teaching, I don’t know. But I know I want to work with kids, and I want to show them how academics and athletics work hand and hand and how both are beneficial to where you want to go. I’d like to have academic learning available to them, as well as athletics like camps. I was fortunate enough to be able to attend camps as a kid, and I think it would be cool to be able to bring in athletes to conduct different camps for kids close to my home.
CS: One of the great advantages of being a professional athlete is the fame you achieve instantly, and with that fame comes the opportunity to start your own foundation. A foundation in your name would enable you to realize the goal of conducting camps just as you described and give back to the community you grew up in.
Johnson: Exactly; that’s what it’s all about. I always want to try to give back. I was fortunate enough to be blessed with great parents who instilled great leadership in my life. I want to give that same kind of support to others.
CS: On the field, you are still developing as a pass rusher, and you have a lot of great qualities. But what do you see in your game that you still have to improve on to become a dominant player?
Johnson: I just want to go out this year and show everybody that I can play every down and just have fun. I want to play the run, play the pass and just try to dominate.
CS: There are a lot of analysts that think you’re primarily a pass rusher and that you don’t defend the run very well. How do you prove those critics wrong this season?
Johnson: Come and watch me this season. I’m 100-percent healthy and I’m going to play a lot this year… [Laughs].
Johnson is one of the best pass rushers in college football, but he has to improve against the run.
AP Photo/John Amis
CS: Do you hear a lot of negatives about your run defense?
Johnson: No, because my teammates and the people around me know that I can play. I respect my teammates and what they have to say; I don’t really worry about it [the criticism].
CS: You’re a freakish athlete with a tremendous 6-foot-7 frame. What do you weigh at this time, and do you feel comfortable at your weight, or do you want to get bigger?
Johnson: I weigh 260, but I wouldn’t mind getting up to 265. Last year, I started the season at about 250 and ended the season at around 245. I’m excited to see what the increase in size will do for me this season. I think it will only help, especially against the run… [Laughs].
CS: Is there a player in the NFL that you pattern your game after?
Johnson: Julius Peppers is my favorite player and I’ve always enjoyed watching Jevon Kearse. I really enjoyed watching the Giants defensive line this past season with Michael Strahan, Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck; their pass rush was just nasty. I also enjoy watching DeMarcus Ware, Shawne Merriman and Mario Williams. I really enjoy watching the guys who are athletic and get after the quarterback.
CS: Like I previously stated, you’re an athletic freak, and you have some versatility to your game. Do you think you could drop back on defense and play outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme at the next level?
Johnson: Oh yeah, oh yeah, oh yeah… I can definitely do that.
CS: Where do you think you would be more effective: at defensive end or linebacker?
Johnson: It doesn’t matter, I just feel comfortable on the field. Wherever they want me to play, I’ll play. I’m not one to complain about what position I play or how much I play; whenever I’m out there I’m going to give everything I got.
CS: Talk about this year’s squad; what do you guys have to do to get to a BCS game?
Johnson: We just have to sellout and do what the coaches want us to do. We have to follow their every detail every step of the way. I think we can accomplish some great things; we just have to do our jobs.
CS: Do you feel extra pressure this season, especially since you decided to come back for your senior season and because you’re one of the top DEs in the country?
Johnson: I don’t know how much is going to be put on me, but I’m thankful to have my surrounding cast; the cats inside like Vance Walker and Darryl Richard. Honestly, I don’t even really feel like it’s about me. I’m just glad to be back and have a lot of talented guys around me. I believe we can all make plays.
CS: You seem to have a bit of a reserved demeanor, would you say that you lead by example rather than being a vocal leader in the locker room?
Johnson: Definitely, I always try to lead by example. I try to set an example, especially for the freshman. I try to work hard in the weight room, running; all that stuff. I try to bring a lot of energy to the game and just try to show everyone how to have fun on the field. I’m not really a big talker in the locker room; I allow my actions to do all the talking.
CS: What are your goals for this season? Obviously raising your sack total is something you will focus on, but overall do you have any personal goals?
Johnson: The sacks will come with me just being on the field more. I’m not really worried about that; I just want to create turnovers. Turnovers sway the momentum of the game, and for all my teammates on defense, I want that to be our goal. We have to make the opponent put the ball on the ground and take it out of the air from them. I don’t care how we do it; I just want to get as many turnovers as possible, and if we can lead the country in sacks again, that would be nice.
A member of the Pro Football Writers of America and the Football Writers Association of America, Chris Steuber has provided his analysis of the NFL and NFL Draft prospects on the web and on the radio since 1999.