Being from the small town of Aynor, T.J. Johnson is used to being easily recognized.
Now in Cincinnati, the Bengals’ seventh-round draft pick is receiving similar attention in a more dense atmosphere.
“It’s kind of neat here in Cincinnati; it’s definitely a sports town,” said Johnson, a 6-foot-4, 310-pound center whom the Bengals selected out of South Carolina with the 251st overall pick of the 2013 NFL Draft.
“Just from being the size of a lineman, most people kind of figure that you play anyway, so a lot of people either know who you are or are asking as you walk around. So it’s definitely a sports town, and it’s a pretty neat atmosphere around here. I’m kind of excited to see what game days are going to be like.”
Projected as a late-round pick, Johnson was relieved when his name was called on the last day of the draft, regardless of the destination.
“I never really had a favorite team growing up,” Johnson said. “I was just thankful to even be considered to enter the draft, and when Cincinnati picked me I was very excited. Pretty much the whole [Bengals] coaching staff had come to my pro day and I felt like it had went well, I had a pretty good feeling about things, and I was just really excited when everything worked out.”
Johnson started all 53 games in his career at USC, a school record, and is the only player in Gamecock history to start in four victories over Palmetto State rival Clemson.
Jody Jenerette, Johnson’s coach while at Aynor High School, is by no means surprised by the offensive lineman’s successes.
“He’s a tremendous Christian first of all, first and foremost,” Jenerette said. “I mean, his whole football career is more of a testament to his beliefs, and Jesus Christ, and that’s made a huge impact on the way he’s played throughout his whole career at [South] Carolina and Aynor. And he’s the hardest-working player I’ve ever coached.”
Jenerette doesn’t expect the biggest stage of football to change that, either.
“A lot of times people get the impression that these Division I football players and these NFL guys get – they’ve got everything handed to them – but he’s one of those guys that’s the first one in the weight room, the last one out,” said Jenerette, who still coaches the Blue Jackets. “He’s just always wanting to get better every single day, and obviously it’s paid off for him. … He’s just one of those kind of guys that you dream about coaching whenever you get into the coaching profession.”
Johnson is in the midst of the first test, Organized Team Activities – known in short as OTAs.
“OTAs are non-contact and everybody’s here so it’s kind of a full-speed walkthrough, but I guess the main difference so far has been the competition,” Johnson said. “Everybody’s good here; everybody’s fast. The complexity of the scheme is a lot more complex in the components of it.”
Johnson’s a fast learner, says Jenerette, who saw it firsthand.
“He’s very intelligent. He’s an extremely smart young man, I mean he’ll catch on to everything that they need him to do, all the different calls that need to be made up front,” Jenerette said. “Sometimes you’ve got to change the plays at the line of scrimmage, and he’s one of those guys that’s going to know exactly what everybody should be doing at all times.”
Johnson believes the mental aspect will be a key in his progression.
“The center has a ton of calls to make, and I feel like that’s first and foremost the priority,” Johnson said. “As far as learning the techniques and how the coaches want things done, I think that’s what it would take [to move up the depth chart].”
Johnson will have help from a familiar face as he transitions to the pro game. Travelle Wharton, a fellow Gamecock who was a strong presence at USC even after going to the pros, is one of Johnson’s new teammates.
“He left a few years before I came in but I knew him because he was always hanging around the program [in the offseason] even after he left,” said Johnson, who also has a familiar teammate in fellow rookie Bruce Taylor, a Myrtle Beach native who played at Virginia Tech.
“So after I got drafted [Wharton] called me and he’s been a real big help since I’ve been here, as far as giving me advice on things and just being someone there to talk to about things, so that’s been pretty nice.”
Besides learning the ropes, Jenerette says Johnson’s durability and versatility will give him a leg up.
“He’s very athletic; he’s durable. He started all those games at South Carolina and he never got hurt, knock on wood obviously, and you hope that carries on into your pro game,” Jenerette said. “He’s able to play guard, he’s able to play center, so he could play three spots on your offensive line for you, and there’s not many guys who can do that.”
One thing for sure, Jenerette says, is that Johnson won’t disappoint.
“I think he can have a long, long, long career in the NFL from a durability standpoint,” Jenerette said. “Every day he’s going to be [working hard]. He’s going to be in the training room, he’s not going to be whining, he’s going to keep his body in shape, he’s going to keep his mind in shape, he’s not going to be in the nightclub atmosphere, he’s not going to be doing that kind of stuff; he’s going to be the kind of guy that you want in your building every single day.”
Contact JOSH BELL at 444-1702.