One of the good things about high school football, is that coaches can plug in athletes — regardless of size — into unconventional positions.
I’ve seen prep offensive linemen who weigh 170 pounds soaking wet, which would never fly in college or pro football. I’ve also seen the biggest player on the team double as the kicker and punter.
In high school football, you really can fit a square peg into a round hole.
That’s one arena which makes high school football more intriguing than the pros who play the game. High school coaches can tinker with the roster as much as they want to put players in positions to help the team most.
Especially on offense, where you want the best athletes in position to touch the football, regardless the position they are more accustomed to playing.
So when I heard that Gainesville High is now using senior middle linebacker A.J. Johnson’s athletic ability as a ball carrier too, it really came as no surprise. Not only can Johnson single-handedly destroy the running game of the opposing team with his tackling ability, but apparently he can also drag a handful of defenders on his jersey as he carries the ball too.
Johnson was probably the reason the Red Elephants (1-1) won their game against White County (1-1) last Friday with the 75 yards he gained in the second half. Really, what defense is prepared to tackle a player like Johnson, one of the nation’s most highly recruited linebacker prospects, when he’s barreling through the line with the ball in his hands and the game on the line?
I don’t think many teams practice tackling players of his strength.
Now, the only downside for Gainesville running Johnson at running back is that coach Bruce Miller has already tipped his hand with what he plans to do. Not that it really matters. I can visualize a defense stacking eight players in the box, collapsing on Johnson after the snap, and the 6-foot-3, 230-pound linebacker just dragging would-be tacklers down the field.
Sure, Miller would have liked to kept this little wrinkle in his pocket for games that are most important to the Red Elephants, like North Hall, or when subregion play opens next month. However, Gainesville didn’t want to open the season 0-2, especially when the Red Elephants had a remedy to get the ball downfield right there on the sideline.
Now that the cat’s out of the bag, teams will already be scheming what to do defensively when Johnson checks into the game on offense. Kids will be preparing themselves mentally to get low and make the hit if he’s rumbling with the ball tucked away in their direction. All I can say is it will be fun to see it in person from the safe confines of a press box. I’ve already told Miller that I want see it when Gainesville faces North Hall in two weeks at The Brickyard, which will be the first time I see the Red Elephants play this season.
My co-worker, Jon Zopf, came back from Cleveland on Friday night after covering Gainesville’s game against White County with a big grin on his face, comparing Johnson’s feats to Christian Okoye. For those of the you too young to remember, Okoye, dubbed the “Nigerian Nightmare” was a bruising 250-pound fullback for the Kansas City Chiefs in the late 80’s and early 90’s. Even though he had a relatively brief career, Okoye rushed for almost 5,000 yards in six seasons by lowering his head and plowing through defenders at the line of scrimmage. Apparently, running strictly between the tackles puts some mileage on the tires really fast.
Johnson certainly brings an exciting new wrinkle to the high school game. I’m ready to see this firsthand.
Bill Murphy is a sports writer for The Times. Follow him at twitter.com/gtimesbmurphy.