July 23, 2014
By Matt Winkeljohn
The Good Word
Isaiah Johnson is one of those early-to-arrive-late-to-leave guys and all that, but he had no intention of being at Georgia Tech this long.
He figured to be in the NFL by now.
Fate happened, though, and in practice of all places.
The graduate safety said he’s happy to still be on the Flats, building himself back up after wrenching his left knee in Sun Bowl practice in December of 2012.
Since he has not played a football game in about 20 months, he’s more than a tad eager for fall practice to begin a little more than a week from today.
Johnson is also looking forward to graduating in December – again.
“The benefit academically was I graduated last fall, and enrolled in the graduate program in building construction,” he said. “At the end of this season, I’ll be looking at crossing the stage once again for my Master’s degree.
“And physically and athletically, I was able to make my knee stronger. On the way here, I was like, `Which knee was it?’ “
Last fall, Johnson’s left knee still felt different.
He was cleared by doctors to play around mid-season and he was practicing with the Yellow Jackets before opting to remain on the game-day sideline anyway.
The decision was not about sticking around long enough to earn a Master’s degree, and some observers even felt it possible that Johnson might enter the 2014 NFL Draft even after redshirting 2013.
Ultimately, it was the joint – in which he suffered multiple ligament tears – and the psychology of playing with it.
“It was really the knee. It just wasn’t ready,” he said. “I pushed myself and pushed myself, and my knee couldn’t handle it. From Day One, my doctor told me a minimum of a year. I was trying to go against the grain.
“If I was to have come back last year, I would have been coming off rehab. It’s not the same as being in shape and training. It’s a big difference.”
Johnson was full-go by spring practice, and in fact returned a fumble for a touchdown in the spring game.
Tech head coach Paul Johnson, defensive coordinator Ted Roof, the staff and Johnson’s teammates may be just as thrilled as he is about his return.
This is not just a player here; Johnson has a distinct habit of finding the football and whomever is catching or carrying it.
After registering 46 combined tackles and assists as a freshman out of Sandy Creek High (former Tech wide receiver Calvin Johnson’s alma mater), when he played in 13 games and started three, he started every game of his sophomore and junior seasons.
With 78 tackles in 2011 he finished second on the team, and led the Jackets with 87 stops in ’12 despite missing Tech’s Sun Bowl win over Southern Cal.
He has five career interceptions, two of which he returned for scores, and five fumble recoveries. His 211 total tackles in 39 games (with 29 starts) rank 14th in program history among defensive backs, and with another season similar to the last two, he’ll move into the top five.
Having already benefitted from enrolling early at Tech in January of 2010 just weeks after winning a state title with Sandy Creek, Johnson stands to profit all the more by sticking around for a fifth autumn.
Just in case he should forget while he’s still around, he has a vivid reminder on his cell phone. After he was injured, he went to see what happened when viewing tape of that fateful practice.
In a way, it’s an incentive.
“I have it on my phone, on video. Johnson said. “It was seven-on-seven pass drills. It was a light day with helmets, not even shoulder pads. Vad Lee threw it up to Jamie Alvarez. Since it was a light day. I wasn’t really trying to explode or get the ball. I was just trying to get out of his way in a way.
“When I came down, my knee turned out and Jamie ran it. I knew something was wrong because I felt something snap. I don’t watch [the video] all the time, but . . . I wanted to keep that play so I could build from that moment. I chose to stay, and I’m glad that I did.”
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