South Carolina football fans have to be thankful that center T.J. Johnson gave up his dream of smashing baseballs for the reality of banging around with 300-pound-plus defensive linemen.
Growing up in tiny Aynor, Johnson’s first love was baseball. But his body quickly outgrew that sport, and he developed into the focal point of the Gamecocks’ offensive line.
“I almost didn’t play football my ninth-grade year,” Johnson said. “I thought I was going to be a baseball player. I ended up playing football in ninth grade, though, and I eventually grew into a football body.”
Johnson, a 6-foot-5, 305-pound redshirt sophomore, received All-SEC freshman honors from the league’s coaches and was named an honorable mention freshman All-American by CollegeFootballNews.com.
He redshirted in 2008 because he said he was not ready for SEC football.
“I have high expectations of myself, and I wanted to come in and play right away,” Johnson said. “But I wasn’t ready, and I’m very thankful that I redshirted. It gave me that extra year to get where I needed to be. I consider myself blessed to have the season that I had last year.”
Johnson started 13 games last season at right guard, one of five Gamecocks to start every contest.
He had not played center before this season, but coaches believed he would be a good fit for the position. The learning curve has been steep.
“I still have a lot of work to do,” he said. “There are things I just have to get used to. The biggest difference is having to snap the ball and then move. Plus, you have to make sure you get the ball to the quarterback. If you don’t do that, you can’t do anything.”
First-year offensive line coach Shawn Elliott said he never doubted Johnson could make the position switch, which was initiated in the spring.
“Each day he is getting better,” Elliot said.
Playing center is different from any other position on the line. Johnson is primarily responsible for determining the defense’s coverage scheme and calling out necessary audibles to his linemates – all with a mammoth nose guard hovering inches in front of him.
“You are in the center of the line, you make all the calls and you handle the ball each and every play. He is getting more experienced and getting more comfortable in that role,” Elliott said. “There is a lot of responsibility that goes into that center position, so you have to have a guy up there that is accountable and has a lot of smarts that can get things done.”
Johnson wants to put the horrors of last season – USC allowed 37 sacks and was the SEC’s worst rushing team – behind him. He likes the progress the line has made in the preseason.
The unit’s lack of depth was apparent after injuries sidelined a couple of linemen. But Johnson thinks the line will be a more cohesive unit this season; he just hopes the results show on the field.
“Coach Elliott reminds us every single day how many sacks we gave up last year and how we were last in the league in rushing,” Johnson said. “We will not be the weak point this year.”