Spencer Johnson was one of the surprise stories of the Vikings' 2004 season, working his way from the deepest end of the depth chart to a starting spot for a playoff-bound team by the end of the year. Now, the second-year man needs to learn how to continue to improve without letting success get to his head.
So far, he's off to a good start, spending the offseason in the Twin Cities with his nose in the playbook and body in the weight room in an effort to stay in shape. He's also enjoying the camaraderie that has helped give a tight-knit team a family atmosphere.
"Now that we've got a year under our belts, we've really had a chance this offseason to feel each other out and learn from each other," Johnson said of his teammates, especially on the defensive line. "This team's got a real family feel to it, and that helps when we take it out onto the field."
A big part – in so many ways – of the new defensive line is veteran Pat Williams, who was signed away from the Buffalo Bills in the offseason to start at nose tackle. Although Williams has basically been handed a starting job that Johnson would have been favored to win, Johnson is taking it all in stride and accentuating the positive.
"Pat Williams has been just great to me," Johnson said. "He's a great guy, first, and he's a good football player I can learn from, so I'll be just fine. However it works itself out, I will come out and give 100 percent and I know he will do the same."
That positive attitude has been an attribute that helped Johnson overcome not being drafted last year after a solid career at Auburn. But his college teammate, Vikings linebacker Dontarrious Thomas, said Johnson's rapid progress last year came as no shock to him.
"I wasn't surprised at all, and I was definitely excited for him," Thomas said. "He did that in college, too. He stepped in as a true freshman and made the adjustment to the college game quickly. He may not be the best combine guy or do the best in the workouts, but when he gets out there on the field you can see that he's definitely a good football player."
Auburn has a way of churning out good football players, like the four who were taken in the first round of the NFL Draft last weekend. Johnson said he was pulling for his former teammates and looks forward to welcoming them to the NFL.
"I know them all well," Johnson said of the latest Tiger alumni to reach the NFL. "They're going to do great, every one of them. They're great guys, very humble and hard-working, and they got what they deserve."
The same could be said for Johnson, who emerged into a reliable player on the Vikings defensive line last year. After being inactive for the first seven games of the season, he ended up starting the final seven games and both playoff tilts. He made his professional debut with three tackles on Monday Night Football at Indianapolis, started his first game two weeks later at home against Detroit, notched his first sack at Chicago and had a career-high 10 tackles against the Packers on Christmas Eve.
But with Williams now in the fold, Johnson could go back to a reserve role, but Thomas said that won't stop him from contributing.
"I see him making everybody better," Thomas said. "He brings a lot to the table. When he comes into the game, we're not going to lose a step. If he's not starting, he'll continue to push the other guys and show his value to the team."
Johnson could be part of an emerging defense that has added a slew of talented new players and is pushing for headline status on a team that has been characterized by its dynamic offense in years past. And that's just the way he likes it.
"If you look at all the great teams through the history of the NFL, all of them have had great defenses," Johnson said. "We've had an explosive offense and guys who go out and make plays, and now maybe we've got the same on defense."
To help make that outcome a reality, Johnson will stay in Minnesota between minicamp and training camp, working on building his body and team unity.
"We're all here working together and sweating together," he said, "so when we get on the field we know how badly everybody wants it."
Spencer Johnson Takes Reduced Role In Stride
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