PSU's Johnson sees NFL stock rise
Austin Johnson hasn’t been paying much attention to all of the NFL draft buzz he’s been generating.
That doesn’t mean his mother can’t read up on it.
“My mom has a Google alert,” the Penn State defensive tackle said. “She puts my name in and has a Google alert, so that’s pretty funny. She sends me stuff, I look at it, and just kind of keep on going on about my day.
“It’s about this team. This is where I am right now. Yeah, it’s just about this team and making this year for the seniors good just by winning this game.”
“This game” would be Saturday’s showdown with national title contender Michigan State on the road. And it’s very conceivable that it could be the next-to-last time Johnson suits up for the Nittany Lions.
While quarterback Christian Hackenberg has drawn most of the spotlight when it comes to NFL talk this season, it’s not hard to imagine that Johnson could be the first Penn State player drafted this spring.
Like Hackenberg, Johnson still has a year of eligibility remaining for 2016, meaning there’s at least some doubt about their football future. And also like Hackenberg, Johnson isn’t about to discuss the topic with the season still ongoing.
“No, I’m just kind of worried about playing this year and kind of playing this last game and winning for the seniors that actually have their last game,” Johnson said. “And I kind of want to make up for the loss that we had last week.”
That would be a 28-16 defeat to Michigan in the Lions’ home finale, which was senior day for three of his fellow defensive linemen — Anthony Zettel, Carl Nassib and Tarow Barney.
Beating the Spartans on their own senior day would ease that a bit.
“I want to win this game really bad,” Johnson said. “Not even just to be the spoiler of their season, but just to make Anthony happy, Carl, and Tarow and Kyle Carter and (Matt Zanellato) and all those guys who are seniors, just make them happy and just end the season off on a good note.”
That attitude hasn’t gone unnoticed in the locker room and at Penn State’s Lasch Building headquarters.
“Austin is a guy that’s very well-respected,” Lions coach James Franklin said. “He’s graduating. He’s doing it in the classroom. He’s been a great teammate. He’s been very, very productive on the field. I wouldn’t say he’s really outspoken, but there’s times where he does speak up. He’s also a guy that I see in our offices all the time. He’s always up kind of watching film and hanging out with the coach.
“I think he’s had a bigger role. I think we’ve got four seniors starting for us, so those underclassmen have to have bigger roles when it comes to leadership, and he’s one of them.”
Johnson has tended to get overshadowed by some of his teammates up front. He didn’t have a pick-six against Ohio State or become a viral video sensation by tackling trees to the ground like Zettel.
And this season, the Lions’ breakout star has been Nassib, the former walk-on nicknamed “Crazy Carl” who amazingly leads the country in sacks, tackles for loss and forced fumble despite missing nearly all of last week with an injury.
But pro scouts have certainly been paying attention.
At 6-foot-4, 325 pounds, Johnson still moves like he did as a standout basketball player growing up in New Jersey. That’s how he’s been able to make so many tackles outside of the hashes this season — especially rare for a guy playing at the one-technique spot.
Johnson did just that on a handful of plays against Northwestern earlier this month with Chicago Bears general manager Ryan Pace watching in person.
“I want to run to the ball and make as many plays as I can for my team,” Johnson said. “Because if I don’t, then I know that I’ll be letting them down. Just letting my defense down and letting the whole team down if I don’t run to the ball, try and make a play, try and make a difference. Not just in the middle, but on the outside as well.”
That motor has helped him rank third on the team in tackles with 68, just one behind safety Marcus Allen for second. Johnson has come up with 13 tackles for loss and dramatically improved on his ability as a pass rusher, recording 5.5 sacks — up from just one a year ago.
All of that is before even mentioning the fumble he scooped up in the middle of the field back in September, beating San Diego State players to the sideline for a game-changing 71-yard touchdown return.
It was a sign that Johnson could be the latest in a string of NFL draft picks to play defensive tackle at Penn State, following the path of DaQuan Jones, Jordan Hill, Devon Still, Jared Odrick, Jay Alford, Jimmy Kennedy and Anthony Adams.
But for at least a little bit longer, the NFL can wait.
“I’m not really thinking about that at all,” Johnson said. “I mean, I’m just trying to play to the best of my ability and trying to end the season on a good note for these seniors.
“I’m just trying to play to the best of my ability and make every play that I can, just trying to make the biggest difference that I possibly can on the field.”