Defensive tackle Johnson impresses with hard hits, speed
Anthony Johnson was always a man among boys.
He stood 6-foot-1 and weighed 240 pounds as a seventh grader at Henry Ford Middle School in the New Orleans area. With what he recalls as a full beard.
A few years later, when then-Tennessee defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin watched Johnson run the 40-yard dash at a UT football camp, the longtime NFL assistant remarked that the mountainous recruit possessed “freakish” speed for a young man his size, inspiring the “Freak” nickname Johnson still carries today.
But now, as a 6-3, 288-pound sophomore defensive tackle for LSU playing in the nation’s most competitive conference, Johnson can no longer penetrate an opponent’s head with his size — nor the thick, black beard he wears with a straight-razored head.
So he finds other ways.
“I beat on my chest to try and intimidate my opponent — just let them know I’m not going anywhere,” Johnson said. “My teammates aren’t going anywhere. We’re about to attack you.”
The thumping Idaho heard Saturday was Johnson registering five tackles, including 1.5 for losses, in his first collegiate start.
After enrolling at LSU in January 2011 as a five-star recruit, the former O. Perry Walker standout played plenty as a freshman last year, but he got his shot to start against Idaho because senior Josh Downs was sidelined with an undisclosed injury.
The banging of the chest started on the game’s opening possession.
Idaho had picked up two first downs on the first six plays and was threatening to register a third. Ryan Bass took the handoff on fourth-and-1 at the LSU 44, then was met behind the line by Johnson, who got some help from Jermauria Rasco.
Johnson has the strength to bench press an RV lot, but he said it was using his head that beat the play.
“I noticed that the guard was leaning toward me, so I knew he was going to try and reach me,” Johnson said. “So what I did is I dipped under him and shed the technique.”
Although he came off the bench the first two weeks of the season, Johnson enters Saturday’s game at Auburn as LSU’s fifth-leading tackler with 11 stops. He also has 2.5 tackles for loss, tied for second on the team.
For those who make a living evaluating college prospects, such production from him always seemed inevitable.
Johnson was the highest-rated defensive player in Louisiana’s heralded 2012 recruiting class and the consensus top-rated defensive lineman in the nation. Every major recruiting service gave him five stars for the chaos he caused in the trenches.
That’s to say nothing of the fact Johnson sang the national anthem before some of O. Perry Walker’s home football games.
But when he made the leap to college football, Johnson said he had an inherent belief that he needed to play bigger. So he put on more than 20 pounds — up to 322 — for his freshman season.
His mother told him he needed to lose some weight.
“She told me I had Dunlap disease,” Johnson said. “She said my stomach done lapped over my belt.”
The slimmer, fitter Johnson is once again showing off the speed and athleticism that earned him his Jevon Kearse-like nickname.
That alone is intimidating enough. No pounding of the chest required.