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Defensive line key to Georgia Tech's success
Georgia Tech defensive end Michael Johnson, left, smiles as he poses for a photo with a six week old baby and a fan Saturday during Georgia Tech college football media day in Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta. - photo by The Associated Press

ATLANTA — Michael Johnson has a lot of big-play experience for a guy who has made only two starts in his first three years at Georgia Tech.

Johnson, a 6-foot-7 defensive end, is one of three starting seniors who are expected to make the defensive line a strength for Georgia Tech. The experience on the line is especially important as a young offense adjusts to new coach Paul Johnson’s option offense.

Paul Johnson said Saturday he expects to have freshmen and sophomores at the skill positions on offense, at linebacker and three spots in the secondary.

The experience of the three seniors on the defensive line — Michael Johnson and defensive tackles Vance Walker and Darryl Richard — is notable on such a young team, but only Walker and Richard are experienced at starting.

Michael Johnson’s only start in 2007 came in the Yellow Jackets’ Humanitarian Bowl game. He also started only one game in 2006.

That doesn’t mean Johnson hasn’t played. The tall end has been a regular on passing downs, where he has made an impact with big plays. He tied for seventh in the Atlantic Coast Conference with three forced fumbles last season, giving him seven for his career, and he’s had nine sacks the last two seasons.

That explains Johnson’s answer when asked to identify his favorite snack: “Quarterbacks.”
Now comes Johnson’s chance to show he can play every down. Does he plan to expand his diet for his senior season?

Maybe not. He shook his head in a negative response when asked the question.

“I like quarterbacks,” he repeated Saturday as he signed autographs at the team’s fan day.
Johnson may be targeted on running plays. Thanks to his height, he still looks lean at 260 pounds, but he says “I’m stronger than a lot of people think.”

Johnson says he looks forward to being tested.

“I hope they do,” he said. “It will give me an opportunity to get better and better and help my team on every down.”

Johnson said he’s ready to prove he can be more than a pass-rush specialist.

“I have to make sure I’m well-conditioned and hydrated,” he said. “I’m lean, so I cramp at times when I don’t hydrate good enough.”

Johnson already has posted numbers expected of a full-time starter. He had two sacks, seven tackles, a forced fumble and a blocked kick against Virginia Tech last season. He opened the season with two tackles for losses, a sacks and a forced fumble against Notre Dame.

Johnson’s size, quickness and knack for big plays are reasons he’s already projected as a possible first-round pick in the 2009 NFL draft.

“We think Michael Johnson can maybe have a breakout year,” said Paul Johnson. “Certainly physically he’s got all the tools you would want.”

Richard said Michael Johnson’s lack of starting experience is no reason for concern.

“Sometimes he may have been missing only one down in a series,” Richard said. “There were a lot of times when I was the starter but Mike played more snaps in a series than I did.

“I wouldn’t say he doesn’t have experience. It was just a different type of running he has to prepare for. During second or third down you will not get the type of smash-mouth running, instead more of the zone-type running.”

The switch to the option offense has been the hot topic, but there also are changes on defense under new coordinator Dave Wommack, who replaced Jon Tenuta.

Under Tenuta, now an assistant at Notre Dame, Tech was known for the zone-blitz schemes that helped set up big plays for Johnson and others.

Johnson said Wommack’s defense will be more diversified.

“We’re going to come out in different fronts and different formations,” Johnson said. “We’re not going to be predictable at all. We’re going to have people guessing. .... Sometimes we’ll come out with three down linemen, sometimes four.”

Added Walker: “We might not blitz as much as we did last year, but we’ll still blitz. We’ll have a lot more freedom. I think that’s a good thing. ... Having our experinece on the defensive line does help a lot.”

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