Ellis Johnson could never stay away from the game that has been a major part of his life.
“I’m breaking some film down for a couple of my buddies and that’s keeping my eyes on football,” South Carolina’s former defensive coordinator (2008-11) said Thursday, before he spoke to the Columbia Touchdown Club. “Doing a couple of radio call-ins to Tuscaloosa every week. I’m a glorified talking-head fan right now.”
Johnson isn’t mad about his current situation. He’s simply anxious to stay involved in the game, which he hopes will lead to another position after the current season ends. A gypsy in football, having made stops across South Carolina and the SEC, Johnson’s not ready to call it quits just yet.
So he helps his friends, chimes in on analysis and gets re-engaged with Columbia. After being fired at Auburn in November, Johnson and his family moved back to the Midlands. Wife Caroline is a Columbia native and still owns the Miss Cocky boutique while Johnson is a native of Winnsboro.
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He’s a familiar face, and his opinion is always valued. As the current Gamecocks defense worsens, Johnson gets asked what’s wrong. He doesn’t have one solution, but notices a lack of what made three of his four USC defenses national Top 15 units.
“I just don’t see those 10 impact plays a game they need to have,” Johnson said. “When you got players and they’re good enough to be SEC players, you got to have those 10 plays that can affect a game. Right now, they’re getting about two or three. Somebody’s got to step up and find those.”
His stint at USC was stocked with stars and outstanding performances. Johnson is justifiably proud of what he accomplished at USC.
“It was the best stretch in the history of this program,” he said. “We had the whole process of the coaches, the players. The level we had it at was the most pleasing, the most fun.”
His career since has rarely matched that height. Johnson left USC for a head coaching spot at Southern Mississippi. His only season was a winless year, with injuries and the adjustment from coordinator to overseer contributing to it.
Still, Johnson rebounded as Auburn’s defensive coordinator in 2013, helping guide the Tigers to an SEC championship and a national runner-up finish. One of the highlights of that season, the “Kick-6” where Auburn’s Chris Davis returned a missed Alabama field goal for the game-winning touchdown, was Johnson’s idea.
“Gus (Malzahn) was the one who said, ‘They’re going to try a field goal,’” Johnson said. “I said, ‘If he tries a field goal from there, we need to put somebody back to run it back, and don’t try to block it.’ So that’s what we did.”
Davis fielded the ball deep in his own end zone, cut left, danced along the sideline and suddenly was in the clear. The Tigers beat their hated rival for the SEC West crown and went on to play for the national championship.
“My reasoning -- from that distance, and what was riding on the ballgame, the chances of making it were very slim,” Johnson said. “I’d rather return it than try to block it.
“Anybody can make a 10-foot putt on the putting green. When you got to make a 10-foot putt to win the Masters, it’s different.”
Even that glorious moment didn’t last. Johnson was fired the next season after Alabama got its revenge and then some with a 55-44 win in the Iron Bowl. Auburn couldn’t duplicate the magic of 2013, giving up an average 483 yards and 39 points in their last six SEC games.
He was replaced by former Florida coach Will Muschamp.
Johnson obviously wasn’t happy about being fired but understood that football is a business. He’s been through enough jobs to know that more than anyone.
So it was on to the next one. While it’s been the longest stretch he’s had between jobs, he’s confident the next one is coming.
“I had a couple of other opportunities, people asked me to help out in the fall but I didn’t want to do that,” Johnson said. “I’m not good at watching stuff on TV. It drives me nuts. But I’m keeping up with all the teams on TV, and I know they’re all going through some tough times.
“I hope to get back in the circle in December.”
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