Big man on campus: Massive lineman Sherard Johnson looking for playing time

He’s no mind-reader, but Louisiana-Lafayette sophomore defensive lineman Sherard Johnson knows exactly what’s coming when he sees people rush up to him with their puny legs and inquisitive looks.

“Six-eight,” he lets out before anyone can ask how tall he is.

People are always curious as to how big the 6-foot-8, 383-pound defensive lineman is. But the questions don’t bother him; he’s gotten used to them by now.

And maybe one day his size won’t just be an ice-breaker, but a tool nobody can match on the field. This is what Cajuns coaches and experienced play-makers hope to achieve with their all-around education of Johnson.

Until he figures out exactly how to use his it, Johnson’s size causes some challenges.

Johnson is currently running with the third-team defense on a deep defensive line unit. He saw action in a couple games last season, but didn’t record any statistics. Now in his second year, he’s still figuring out ways to get around being the biggest guy on the field.

“I’m a lot heavier than everybody else on the team, so I have to cheat my way to beating the man in front of me,” Johnson said. “Besides power, I can use that any time on the field, it’s the fact that I’ve got to move around.”

But Johnson’s willingness to work makes a little extra effort worth it for defensive line coach Tim Edwards.

“It’s been a challenge, but I think he’s been hungry and thirsty to get better,” Edwards said. “He wants to be good. So if the kid wants to be a good football player, it gives you something to work with.”

If there was anywhere Johnson could fit in, it’s in a defensive line position meeting, where everybody is huge.

Edwards said Johnson feels comfortable there with the “rest of the big boys.” Around average-sized humans though, his Goliath size might get confused with him being unapproachable.

“If you were just to look at Sherard without knowing him, you probably wouldn’t say two words to him,” said senior defensive lineman Christian Ringo.

But as intimidating as he might be at first glance, Johnson is a nice guy off the field. He’s quiet and polite, his hands devouring yours in a firm handshake.

That’s great, his teammates and coaches say. Just leave the politeness on the sideline.

Edwards said it might be because Johnson has been the biggest guy on the block for so long that he’s always had to temper his full strength so as not to hurt anyone. But Edwards wants Johnson to find a way to unleash that strength on the field.

“Reggie White was the nicest guy in the world until he crossed those white lines,” Edwards said. “That’s what we tried to get (Johnson) to realize, once you get past those lines it’s about doing what you need to do.”

Getting the nasty out of Johnson has been a mission for Ringo and his mates on the defensive line.

“If we could get him to just be a little meaner on the field,” Ringo paused for a long moment, as if he was relishing some vision of Johnson running rampant in his head, “he’d be devastating.”

Until he figures out how to find his mean streak and how to take advantage of his size, Johnson is going to keep working.

Just getting through the 40 minutes of drills and dynamic stretching was a challenge for Johnson his first season. He’d get too tired to compete by the time the full-contact portion of practice came. Now, he feels like he’s able to get a couple of reps in.

Coach Mark Hudspeth acknowledged that being a three-down player isn’t in the cards for Johnson right now, but also noted his improvement, saying Johnson and his immense size can definitely find a home when the defense needs to disrupt an opponent’s gaps in the ground game.

“Everything I set my mind to doing, I do,” Johnson said. “I never back down from a challenge — never. I guess that’s what I’m doing now. My goal now is to help the team out, do my part, make everybody’s life a little better, be successful and achieve my dreams and goals.”