Senior offensive tackle Chris Johnson quietly leads by example
By Jessica Fish
Arizona Athletics Media Relations
Chris Johnson won’t get in your face. He isn’t outspoken, and he won’t let you know what’s coming. But you’ll remember him once you meet him on the football field.
“He’ll line up and just kick your ---,” offensive line coach Eric Wolford said.
The 6-3, 315-pound senior is in the best shape of his life, and with 22 starts as an offensive tackle under his belt, he has the know-how to help shut down Wisconsin’s defense.
A native of Houston, Texas, Johnson came to Arizona out of North Shore High School to play for former head coach Dick Tomey.
“I loved coach Tomey,” Johnson said. “When I first met him, I knew he was the guy I wanted to play for. The school was great and the people here were nice. Everything was perfect.”
Unfortunately, perfection doesn’t last. Exit Tomey, enter John Mackovic. Two years later: Exit Mackovic, enter Mike Hankwitz.
Johnson knows the routine well by now, his fifth year in the spin of Arizona’s revolving-door coaching staff. But this season, under Mike Stoops and yet another brand-new staff, Johnson has re-discovered a taste of the perfection he came to Arizona for.
“I love coach (Stoops),” Johnson said. “If you watch him during the plays, you can tell he’s into it. All the coaches are young, and it seems like they just got done playing football themselves, so they’ve got a grasp on what college football is all about right now. They can relate to the players a lot better this year.”
But a younger, more understanding coaching staff doesn’t mean practice is any easier than it was under Johnson’s three previous coaches. In fact, it’s harder, which would account for Johnson being in such good shape this season.
“The workouts are way more intense,” Johnson said. “Everything is more crisp, and we’re paying more attention. Everything is just way more intense than it was in the past.”
Johnson isn’t one to shy away from a challenge, though. He started all 12 games at left tackle last year, and his favorite game to date was last season’s loss to UCLA, in which he took on Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year Dave Ball.
“(Ball) broke the UCLA sack record last year, and it was a big game for me to be going against him one-on-one,” said Johnson, who helped hold Ball to no sacks against Arizona that night.
According to Wolford, Johnson is someone the Wildcats can pretty much take for granted.
“He’s kind of a quiet guy,” Wolford said. “He shows up on gameday ready to play, and he’s one of those guys we can count on game in and game out.”
Johnson’s dedication to Stoops’ program began this summer, long before Arizona fans got their first glimpse of the Wildcats’ future.
“Chris did a great job this summer in preparing himself to play well,” Stoops said. “His commitment to the program has helped him and his teammates. He sets a good example of how to work hard.”
Johnson isn’t the guy on the team who needs to open his mouth to distinguish himself. He prefers to stand out in more subtle ways. Take, for instance, his jersey. What’s so different about number 59? Well, compare him to the other offensive linemen and chances are you won’t find a lower number.
“Most linemen wear 70 or 71 and on up,” Johnson said. “I told the coaches to give me the lowest number they had, just so I could be a little different from the other guys.”
Another subtle oddity that makes Johnson unique among college football players is his career aspiration. Post-Arizona, Johnson wants to head home to Houston and be a coach or perhaps a teacher. No talk of going pro, though he’ll always be a fan of the Dallas Cowboys and Jerome Bettis in particular.
“He’s a really big running back,” Johnson said. “And I was always big and I always wanted to play that position, so I always looked up to him because he held it down for the big guys.”
While his childhood aspirations of becoming a running back have altered a bit, Johnson has made an impressive career for himself on the Wildcats’ offensive line. Even caught amongst the dynamics of Arizona’s coaching woes during his tenure in Tucson, Johnson has quietly made a name for himself.
This year will be no different. Johnson hopes to end his career at Arizona with something new and different of late: a winning season with a team that per-forms as a whole.
“We’re more of a team now than we have been in the past,” Johnson said. “We got to know each other better as players, and we got to know the coaches better than we have in the past. We grew a lot closer, and I think we can do big things this year.”
Article first appeared in the Sept. 18 Arizona footbal game program