Sept. 11, 2013
By Matt Winkeljohn
Isaiah Johnson was back in blue Tuesday, which was a nice sight for all parties involved, but the Georgia Tech senior safety is still sporting something of a black and blue psyche.
He hasn’t played football since suffering a serious knee injury during practice last December before the Sun Bowl, and while doctors have given him a green light for full-go as his recovery from surgery moves onward, Johnson himself is on yellow. The fact he’s not wearing it any more is progress.
There are a couple parts to rehabilitating from such a serious injury, and perhaps the mental component hasn’t caught up to the physical. With that in mind, Tuesday’s practice was the first one where Johnson did not wear one of the gold jerseys that signifies that a player is limited by injury, but rather the usual blue worn by active defenders.
Johnson did not, however, go all the way in practice. He’s still getting his mind right, and was largely limited to working in drills.
In fact, upon meeting reporters after the last full-pads session of the week before the Yellow Jackets play at Duke on Saturday to open their ACC slate, his first words were, “The blue doesn’t mean anything guys.”
Actually, it probably does. Johnson will almost certainly not play in Durham, but Tuesday was another sign that he may soon jump back in the deep water.
“Getting comfortable with myself, just so I can get back to thinking like I’m out there,” said Johnson, who last season led the Jackets with 87 total tackles. “Having that gold jersey on pretty much held me back. I think this blue jersey is like a confidence booster.”
Johnson’s absence in the spring, summer and first game against Elon has expedited the development of young safeties Jamal Golden, Chris Milton, Demond Smith and Domonique Noble, yet defensive coordinator Ted Roof will too happily welcome back Johnson when the senior from Tyrone (Ga.) feels the time is right.
“We all want the absolute best for Isaiah because he’s been the best teammate and leader,” Roof said. “Part of that is confidence . . . but you know he’s got a lot of pride, too. He doesn’t want to put anything less than his best on the field. When he’s ready, he’ll be back. I know that because nobody wants that more than he does.”
Johnson is thinking not only of how he’ll play upon return, but his future.
He had NFL stock even before his senior year, before he was injured. Having started 29 games at Tech and played in 39, Johnson’s on plenty of film already. He knows, however, that returning early from injury can hurt a player’s pro prospects if his level of play doesn’t match that from before injury.
Some contend that former players damaged their draft standings by playing through injuries in their finals seasons. That is a subjective process, and it’s on Johnson’s mind.
“Exactly. I’ve seen examples . . . that I’ve learned from,” he said. “I’m doing this not to finish this season; I’m doing this so I can play multiple seasons on the next level so I can further my career. I’m taking that into account.”
Asked about the possibility of redshirting this season, Johnson acknowledged that that is a possibility. It seems highly unlikely, though. He’ll graduate in December, and could enter the NFL draft next spring whether he plays this fall or not.
He would carry more question marks that way, however, and the idea of waiting until April, 2015 to become a professional would in some ways at odds with the modus operandi of a young man who entered Tech early out of high school, and became a factor for the Jackets almost right away as a freshman.
Typically, Johnson’s not one to wait around.
“I think he’s got to feel that he’s right,” head coach Paul Johnson said. “I can’t tell him, ‘You’re right.’ he knows his body and he knows when he’s ready, and I’m not going to push a young man who’s coming off [knee surgery] and say, ‘Hey, go ahead. Go ahead.’ “
Isaiah Johnson said he’s getting there, but to be all the there he needs to, “Play faster, play harder. I feel like when I come back if I slow up or think too much, I’m going to get hurt.”
It’s a confidence issue that the management major discusses regularly with his parents and others. “We talk. It’s not only for me. It’s for my family as well,” he said. “We’re in this together.”
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