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#TGW: Like He Never Left

April 19, 2014

THE FLATS – By Jon Cooper
The Good Word

As Isaiah Johnson raced the toward the North end zone with a recovered fumble, no one would have guessed that he was playing his first game since Dec. 1, 2012, when he made five tackles in a 21-15 loss to Florida State in the ACC Championship Game.

Johnson, even felt like he’d turned back the clock — or at least wiped clean his memory of the 502 days between football games.

“Oh yeah. I feel good,” said the redshirt senior safety following Friday night’s Spring Game, a 20-12 win for the opposing White Team. “I’m looking at it like, `Did I really get hurt?’ `What injury?’ That doesn’t bother me at all. I’m playing free.”

Johnson’s freedom will ideally make opposing offenses pay, like it did last night.

His run to pay dirt, which put Gold on the board and, Johnson said, gave him the lead in an informal takeaways points competition among the defense, was a welcome sight on a night when constant driving rain and chilly weather threw a wrench into Friday Night on the Flats.

Even White Team quarterback Tim Byerly, whose fumble took two bounces and a room-service hop up and into the arms of the waiting Johnson, easing his jaunt the other way, wasn’t too upset about what he called “a gift.”

White or Gold, it was just nice to see No. 1 back on the field making plays. Johnson, who has 211 career tackles, will begin the 2014 season 14th in school history in career tackles by a defensive back and is only 62 away from tying the school record set by Jeremy Muyres from 1999-2002.

Come August, the Yellow Jackets gladly will welcome back that kind of playmaker and difference-maker to their secondary.

When they last saw Johnson on the field, he had been voted the winner of the team’s 2012 Defensive Effort Award after leading the Jackets in tackles (87, 53 solo), tying for fifth in tackles for loss (4.5, minus-21 yards) and recording one of the three sacks by DBs.

But then he tore his ACL during practice for the 2012 Hyundai Sun Bowl.

Returning from the injury was frustrating for him. He was cleared to practice in early September, but didn’t feel right. When he chose to redshirt in late September, he had Head Coach Paul Johnson’s blessing — Johnson had said from the beginning that the decision to return would be Isaiah’s.

Missing 2013 hurt but it fired him up for the spring and he played like it.

“Honestly, ever since I’ve been cleared to go I’ve been training to get ready for the spring,” he said. “I’m the type of guy that won’t let it bring me down because I feel like if I slow up that’s how you get hurt. If you play timid.”

Coach Johnson likes the strides his safety has made over the course of spring practice.

“I think Isaiah had a good spring,” Johnson said. “He was tentative a little bit to start with and I think the more he played the more he got back into it. He’s got a lot of experience so that’s a good thing.”

That experience should be a really good thing for a secondary that lost veteran corner Louis Young and safety Jemea Thomas but returns a group includes redshirt juniors Jamal Golden and Demond Smith, who also had a fumble return for a touchdown Friday night, and redshirt sophomore Lynn Griffin, all of whom saw the field last year.

“I’m glad I’m not back playing with some new guys, entirely,” Isaiah said. “Being back out there with Jamal, someone I’m comfortable with, is a good feeling.

“I’ve been a fan of Lynn’s since Day One,” he added. “He works his tail off. He brings it every day. Sometimes it may get a little bit tough for him but I never see him give up. So I like Lynn. I feel good about him.”

Johnson also feels good about being part of Year Two of the Ted Roof era on defense.

“I’m feeling good about the defense,” he said. “Tonight we really couldn’t show you our true potential but we managed to get the ball on the ground, some turnovers, some stops. This is the second year playing under Coach Roof. I’ve been here before playing under a new coordinator (Roof is Johnson’s third). As time goes by you get to feel more comfortable with the system. So I’m feeling good with the defense.”

Most important is that he’s feeling good, period. That’s something nice to think about as he looks forward to summer workouts.

“I think I’m pretty much back on track,” Johnson said. “At this point it doesn’t even seem like I’ve been out. It’s been a long time but now that we’re finished with spring, it seems like I haven’t been out like I have for a whole season. I’m just excited to be back out.”

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