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All Area Football: Player of the Year

Johnson a force on both sides of the ball

POSTED: December 25, 2010 8:54 p.m.
SCOTT ROGERS | The Times/

Gainesville High's A.J. Johnson is mild mannered off the field and normally doesn't have much to say. But for his play on the football field, he's known as "Gorilla" and contributed to the Red Elephants' playoff run from the linebacker and quarterback positions. For his efforts, Johnson is The Times 2010 Football Player of the Year.

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When A.J. Johnson speaks, people listen.

As intimidating a presence on the football field as you can find, Johnson is mild-mannered and fun-loving off the field, and he normally doesn’t have much to say.

“He’s the type of kid who doesn’t say much,” Gainesville coach Bruce Miller said. “But when he talks, you listen.”

Case in point: The first game of the year against Buford, Johnson noticed his offense struggling and in need of a helping hand. So he pitched an idea to Miller, who was looking for a Wildcat quarterback to keep opposing defenses on their toes.

“We tried different kids, and A.J. said, ‘let me try that,’” Miller recalled.

“I just wanted to be on the field and contribute any way I can,” Johnson said. “(Miller) put me back there to see what I could do, and it turned out good.”

That’s an understatement.

The formation that quickly became known as “Gorilla,” debuted during the second game of the year against White County. With the Red Elephants struggling to put the Warriors away, Miller called on Johnson, who ran over, through and past White County’s defense and finished with 76 yards and a touchdown.

That performance was just a sign of things to come. Two weeks later in a win over rival North Hall, Johnson rushed for a career-high 172 yards and scored three touchdowns on just 17 carries.

The 6-foot-3, 235-pound Johnson finished the season with 429 rushing yards and six touchdowns, and when you add in his area-leading 173 tackles (10 for a loss) from his linebacker position, there’s no doubt as to why
Johnson is The Times 2010 Football Player of the Year.

“He’s the type of kid that makes everyone on the team better,” Miller said. “He’s just one of those types of athletes.”

A quiet leader, Johnson promotes more of a do-as-I-do philosophy as opposed to a do-as-I-say. He’s been a constant on the Gainesville defense since his freshman year, and his high-energy play and hard hits have been the highlights of many Friday nights.

But this year, things were different.

The Red Elephants were coming off a runner-up finish in the Class AAA playoffs and entered 2010 having graduated nine starters on offense and seven on defense, including three members from Johnson’s linebacking corps.

“We probably started slower than ever, but we bonded and came together,” Johnson said of the defense. “We came together as a unit and learned how to play Gainesville football.”

But while the defense was coming around, the offense was still struggling to find an identity under freshman quarterback Deshaun Watson. Not wanting to put too much pressure on his young signal caller, Miller decided to run the ball more, which ultimately turned into featuring Johnson as his short-yardage and late-game quarterback.

“Having A.J. back there kept us from having to put Deshaun in a pressurized situation,” Miller said. “Just look at the North Hall game. During the last drive, A.J. touched the ball everytime before we could run the clock out.”

Johnson said his role in the backfield had no impact on Watson’s success.

“He’s a great quarterback regardless,” Johnson said.

As Watson matured, Johnson’s role on offense deteriorated. He soon became just a short-yardage quarterback who Miller turned to whenever Gainesville needed an important first down.

“I just wanted to go out there and run hard,” Johnson said. “I told coach, I’ll get 5-plus (yards) if I get the ball.”

Gaining 5 yards or more was even more impressive considering everyone knew what was coming when Johnson lined up at quarterback.

“Everyone in the stadium knew we were going to run it, and they still couldn’t stop it,” Miller said.

Unfortunately for Johnson, his days at a quarterback are probably over. He’s headed to the University of Tennessee in the fall where he hopes to “fight for a starting position,” and “do great things like I did here.”

Oh, and make the University of Georgia regret not going after him.

“It’s their loss,” he said.

Regardless of where he’s playing next year, Miller knows the future is bright for his former All-State linebacker.

“Barring anything unfortunate,” Miller said, “his best years are ahead of him.”



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