Play Fast, Have Fun

Oct. 4, 2007

By Jack Wilkinson –

Wisely, Michael Johnson prefers not to live in the past. No one should, especially not college football players. Yet come this weekend in College Park, Md., on Georgia Tech’s latest road trip, a little back-in-time travel wouldn’t hurt, would it?

“Well,…” Johnson said, hesitantly.

Wouldn’t a little defensive deja vu be sweet? Remember the final, frenzied minute of last year’s Maryland game, when Johnson twice sacked Terps quarterback Sam Hollenbach in the shadow of the goal line to preserve a 27-23 victory? Wouldn’t it be nice to duplicate that defensive stand? Looking forward to Saturday’s noon kickoff in Byrd Stadium, Michael?

“I look forward to each game every week,” Johnson said. “I try not to make any exceptions for any team. Try to go out and prepare the same way, and have a lot of intensity and enthusiasm.”

He paused, then smiled slightly. “It was a fun game,” allowed Johnson, the 6-foot-7 junior and pass-rushing defensive end with the pterodactyl wingspan who actually could pat himself on the back if he so desired – but doesn’t. Another pause. “It’s so long ago,” Johnson said, closing his eyes. Then: “I just kept believing that we were going to win, and I kept playing hard.”

To recap: Trailing 23-14 entering the fourth quarter, Tech scored twice (the second time on Tashard Choice’s 15-yard run) to electrify a Bobby Dodd Stadium crowd of 51,686. It got deathly quiet, however, when Hollenbach hit Darrius Heyward-Bey on a 57-yard catch-and-run to the Tech 7-yard line with a minute left.

Cornerback Avery Roberson made a touchdown-saving tackle on that play. After two Terp runs netted three yards, Johnson made consecutive sacks to officially save the day.

On third-and-goal at the 4, Johnson recalled, “I just remember the coaches saying, ‘Go have fun.’ All I was thinking was, ‘Play fast. Fast, fast, fast.’ That’s how our defense was coached to play.”

Rushing from the defensive left side, Johnson harassed Hollenbach so swiftly, the quarterback had to get rid of the ball and was called for intentional grounding before falling to the ground himself. “I thought it was ruled a fumble,” Johnson said. “I was ready to celebrate with my teammates. I was disappointed that he hadn’t fumbled.

“Then I realized we had another down to go,” said Johnson, who was credited with a sack on the play due to the grounding penalty. “I thought, ‘Have fun, play fast.'”

On fourth-and-19, Johnson speed-rushed and sacked Hollenbach again (one of Johnson’s five sacks last season) to preserve Tech’s fifth straight win. “A lot of people just saw me making the sack,” he said. “Actually, Avery Roberson made the play. He got off the line [blitzing] so fast, he beat a tackle and a tight end. The quarterback couldn’t drop back as much. I was fortunate to be where I was.”

It’s Tech’s good fortune that Johnson’s back in his accustomed pass-rushing role this fall. Through the first five games, he’s made seven tackles (four solos). Three have been for losses totaling 19 yards. Johnson has 1-1/2 sacks. He’s also forced two fumbles and recovered a third.

Often paired with freshman defensive end Derrick Morgan in third-down passing situations, Johnson’s again a pass-rushing presence. He not only uses his size to good advantage, but employs sheer speed – much like that other Michael Johnson did in Atlanta in his double-gold Olympics in 1996.

“It’s been pretty good,” Johnson said of his season so far. “I’m kind of disappointed in the two losses. But it gives us a chance to go out, backs against the wall, and see what we’re made of and climb to the top. Which we’ll do.”

Ask about statistics, and Johnson demurs, saying, “I don’t know. I try not to look at the stats, same as I try not to look at the scoreboard. If you do, your mind is taken away from the task.”

Or the multi-task. Johnson, a highly-recruited tight end at Dallas County High School in Selma, Ala., played some tight end last year and a couple of plays earlier this season. “I like to play anywhere, do anything our coaches think can help us as a team,” Johnson said. “Whatever that may be.”

Including covering kicks? “Yeah,” Johnson said. “It’s cool.”

Even weighing 255 pounds now _ 40 more than when he arrived on The Flats _, Johnson fairly flies on Tech’s special teams. He’s on the punt and kickoff teams, and the punt-block unit.

“It’s a chance to have fun,” Johnson said of those responsibilities. “The kickoff and kickoff return is the most dangerous play in football. I think you get an adrenaline rush. There’s always a chance something can happen.”

In the season-opening win at Notre Dame, Johnson was penalized for running into the punter. He smiled at the memory, and kicks himself: “I almost could’ve taken it right off his foot and run it into the end zone.”

Whatever, wherever, Johnson hopes to create havoc: as a pass-rusher, punt-blocker or covering kicks. Hopes to do so again this Saturday, too. “A punt is very similar to kickoffs,” he said. “Any time you have a lot of bodies running full speed in different directions, a lot of things can happen. Like bumper cars, when you were a kid.”

For Tech, that would be the 93 car.

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