ISAIAH JOHNSON learned the biggest difference between playing football at Kansas and playing football at South Carolina during a trip to Olive Garden this summer.
“Having a couple people come up to me, that’s something I never really experienced,” he said. “They asked to take photos and knew who I was. I obviously know I’m in a bigger spotlight than I was at KU.”
Johnson, a senior safety who transferred from the Jayhawks to the Gamecocks this summer, saw the difference again Tuesday, after the team’s first practice of the season, when he approached a group of more than a dozen media members waiting for a word.
“More than at Kansas,” he told a USC staffer with a grin.
It was South Carolina’s first practice of the fall, and Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier is hopeful Johnson was not the only player on the field ready to make a fresh start. Spurrier called the first workout of fall “very encouraging.”
“What’s sort of neat is nobody knows much about our players right now,” Spurrier said. “It was fun to see the new guys. That’s sort of the thrilling part of coaching in college. It was a good morning. We are upbeat that we found some new ballplayers.”
They needed some after the 2014 season, and the 6-foot-1, 210-pound Johnson is an encouraging sign that they found some. During an offseason in which so many players left the program, he chose to enter it, graduating from Kansas and taking advantage of the NCAA’s graduate transfer exception to play right away at South Carolina.
“I knew right away coming off the plane this was the place for me,” said the Cary, N.C., native, who also considered Louisville and Florida. “Overall, I just thought South Carolina bested every school I was looking at.”
Those are comforting words for a team that went 7-6 last season and must answer some serious questions about itself this year. Johnson will help with that. He was not a leftover or a runaway at Kansas. He was the Big 12’s defensive newcomer of the year in 2013, and he started all 24 games he played for the Jayhawks. In two years, he compiled 148 tackles and six interceptions.
Johnson might start for South Carolina at free safety. He certainly will contribute right away, which is good considering he has one more fall of eligibility remaining.
“No, it’s not a lot of pressure,” he said of his limited window to prove himself. “I’m ready. I came in with my mind right. I’ll take it one step at a time and keep my faith. I’m just going about my business.”
He knows the stakes are high, though, just like they are for his new teammates. The SEC is not a place a player goes to coast to the finish line. It’s also not a place a program can afford to let a lull linger.
“Everybody had that fire in their eyes today,” South Carolina safety Jordan Diggs said. “Everybody was excited about being here for the first day. It was exciting to see that.”