Johnson came to Tech as a grad transfer in January 2020 from Tennessee and went on to anchor the Jackets’ offensive line at right guard. He started all 10 games last season, helped the Jackets’ total offense improve from 286.3 to 389.9 yards per game and earned a spot on the ACC’s all-academic team as well.
For Johnson, his vision of “something special” goes far beyond a winning record, which itself would be an accomplishment after the Jackets have gone a combined 6-16 in coach Geoff Collins’ first two seasons.
“I want to win a championship, and I want to be holding a ring, and I want to be holding a trophy at the end of the season,” he said.
While he acknowledged that a lot of work needs to be done first, Johnson has based his aspirations on more than talk. Voted one of four permanent captains for the 2020 team at the end of the season, Johnson said he has taken confidence not only from the growth and maturity of teammates, but also in the infusion of talent, both incoming freshmen and transfers. Among players who have arrived through the transfer portal are defensive end Keion White, who tied for 10th in the FBS in 2019 in tackles for loss at Old Dominion, wide receiver Kyric McGowan, who caught 34 passes last season at Northwestern, and cornerback Kenyatta Watson, who was a four-star prospect coming out of Grayson High before transferring to Tech from Texas.
“So that’s also something that I see is just very, very important to this team,” Johnson said, “very, very important to our success in the future of this team. So I think we’ve got a lot of things going for us.”
One of those things is the team culture, including what Johnson called, “a great atmosphere that is very hard to find and that you don’t see everywhere in the country.” He sees it, among other places, in how much players want to be around one another after workouts in the locker room or players lounge.
“They’ll hang out with the coaches and watch film all day long,” Johnson said. “It’s not even that it has to be encouraged. It’s just the players want to.”
Johnson is among them, a daily visitor to Key’s office.
“We talk ball, we talk about life,” Johnson said. “And to limit the lessons that I’ve learned from coach Key to just the game of football or just technique would be selling him short, because I’ve learned a lot about life just by sitting in his office and listening to him, listening to stories that he’s told.”
Johnson has also become more enmeshed with his team through the team’s offseason competition, in which players are split up into smaller teams and compete against each other in the weight room and classroom. Teams can also earn points by participating in community service and supporting Jackets athletes at games and matches.
“We’ve got about 10 guys and really got an interesting group,” Johnson said.
Where often friendships are created within position groups or the offensive or defensive units, the offseason teams foster relationships beyond those lines. Johnson, for instance, now knows running back Devin Ellison is “an extremely hard worker,” in his words.
At a service project at the Salvation Army, Johnson said, he was impressed by cornerback Myles Sims.
“I’d never really talked to him a whole lot, but when we went to do a community-service event as a group, I could really see that he really cared,” Johnson said. “Not that everybody else didn’t, but he really put his heart and soul into it.”
The team also has a competition among the three workout groups, which start at 9:15 and 10:30 a.m. and 2 p.m., each vying to be named the best group of the day.
“Everybody is so entangled in competing that everything that they try to do when they step into that weight room is compete with the guy next to him, whether it’s something big, like they want to bench press more, or something small, like they want to do the jumping jacks the best,” Johnson said.
The jumping jacks are an actual example. During a recent workout session, strength coach Lewis Caralla had the group perform five jumping jacks, counting out each number in Spanish, but leaving out “dos” and “cuatro.” The point was to learn to focus when tired, Johnson said, “and also learn Spanish if you were a French major.”
Johnson is in the 2 p.m. group.
“They save the best for last,” Johnson said. “We’re the best group, and you can quote that.”
Returning for the 2021 season also will give Johnson time to finish his master’s degree in analytics, which he can add to the bachelor’s degree in civil engineering and master’s in structural engineering that he earned from Tennessee. The analytics master’s is an interdisciplinary program incorporating Tech’s business, computing and engineering colleges. It is the study of puzzle solving, he said.
“You’re trying to figure out what somebody else is thinking before they ever had the thought,” he said. “You see the ads on Facebook, and they’ll advertise the red bicycle that, you want it, but you never even searched it. You really didn’t even know you wanted it until somebody advertised it and suddenly you want it. The people who are doing that are analytics people.”
He is on track to finish in December, at the end of his fifth season, three at Tennessee and two at Tech. The time at Tech has been amazing, he said, in what he has learned and whom he has met.
“I’ve become a better man by the people I’ve been around here at Georgia Tech, not just in the football offices, not just on the football field but just across campus and across the athletic facility,” Johnson said. “It has been an amazing journey. I’m happy to be able to continue it for the next 11 months.”