One of the perks of my job as a sports writer is to catch so many moments on the athletic fields in the moment. It helps put things into proper context and perspective. I’ve seen the thrill of victory through the eyes of those on the team, and agony of defeat unfiltered. Then, there’s the moments that simply go under the category of ‘did that really just happen’?
Friday’s effort by a bull by the name of A.J. Johnson running the football in Gainesville’s 20-13 victory over North Hall falls under the latter of these categories. Since the Red Elephants’ 230-pound middle linebacker first experimented with running the football against White County in Week 2, I’ve been eager to see what he was going to do in person, knowing we’d see more of the same against North Hall.
He certainly didn’t disappoint. In fact, Johnson exceeded even the wildest expectation for what a newbie to the position could do running the football out of the “Wildcat” formation. Running for 192 yards and three touchdowns on only 17 carries, he single-handedly took control of the game, which is the main point Brent Holloway made in his column from Friday’s game.
For those that haven’t seen Johnson run in person, let me paint the picture for you. He doesn’t knife and cut across the field like Barry Sanders, or even have the breakaway speed of a Deion Sanders type. However, for a young man that will be playing middle linebacker in college next season, he does have a rare sense of how to get away from would-be defenders.
On Friday, I witnessed Johnson spin past one defender, break about four or five tackles and outrun another to the edge all on one play last week.
This is not meant as an indictment to the Trojans’ defense, I’m sure that Johnson will do this to most teams he plays running back against the remainder of the season. The majority of high school defenses just aren’t equipped to stop a back with that kind of size and speed.
Watching the final drive of the game as Gainesville was milking the clock and Johnson was running the ball brought an image to my head. It was if a teenager was in the backyard playing football with his little brothers and the smaller ones were trying feverishly to tackle him. Johnson was the big brother rumbling with the football down the field and carrying his little brothers as they held on tight to his ankles.
Gainesville coach Bruce Miller knows he’s a lucky man to have a player like Johnson on his team, especially with the boatload of talent that graduated from last year’s state finalists in Class AAA. Having a senior presence like Johnson on the field is certainly smoothing the transition in talent and making the job of freshman quarterback Deshaun Watson a whole lot easier.
Whenever the Red Elephants are in a tight game the remainder of the season and it’s getting late in the second half, Miller knows all he’ll have to do is slip Johnson into the backfield and let him start taking snaps out of the shotgun. Johnson knows what to do from there.
What is equally as interesting as Johnson’s talent is the lack of ego this football superstar carries. He doesn’t ask for attention from the media. He answers questions politely, polished and normally with a smile on his face.
As many times as I’ve interviewed him for stories, he’s never once given an answer that came off as the slightest bit cocky or arrogant. This is a kid that really and truly puts the team first, that’s why he’s willing to play so many snaps on the football field without much more than a hydration break.
Barring anything wacky happening, he’s already got my vote as Player of the Year.