Scouting the Cats

Johnson expects breakout year

ccosby@herald-leader.comAugust 18, 2008 

  • Linebackers

    This is the second in an eight-part series examining the 2008 Kentucky football team by position.

  • Scouting the linebackers

    Coach: Chuck Smith is in his fourth season coaching linebackers at his alma mater. Smith was one of the most successful coaches in Kentucky high school football history, winning five consecutive state titles at Boyle County from 1999-2003.

    The main man: Braxton Kelley started his first game as a Wildcat against Louisville in 2005 and has been a fixture in the UK linebacker corps ever since. Kelley spent his first three seasons at middle linebacker but moved to the weak side in the spring to replace All-SEC performer Wesley Woodyard.

    The supporting cast: Junior Micah Johnson has shown flashes, now he'll get his chance to be a full-time player in the middle. Johnny Williams and Sam Maxwell have shared the strong side spot for much of the past two seasons.

    Newcomer to watch: The Wildcat coaching staff says they got a major sleeper out of Florida in Danny Trevathan, a 6-foot-1 210-pounder who impressed with his speed and strength levels in summer workouts. Trevathan has spent most of fall camp at outside linebacker but is capable of playing the middle as well.

    Reasons for optimism: Experience. UK's top four linebackers have played in a combined 119 games with 49 starts.

    Reasons for concern: Johnson must prove he can excel in a full-time role, and Kelley must adjust to a new position. The linebackers also must show they can handle pass coverage.

    Outlook: The unit should be solid, if not spectacular. They're in good shape with their starters, but at least one of the youngsters must be ready to step up in the event of an injury.

    By Chip Cosby

Looking back on it, Micah Johnson can admit it might have been a little too much.

Johnson arrived at Kentucky in 2006 as one of the most touted recruits in school history, choosing the Wildcats over schools such as Notre Dame and Georgia.

He was immediately hailed as the savior of a program that was trying to dig its way out of NCAA probation. Some expected Johnson to step right in as a true freshman and dominate. Johnson even expected it himself.

But things didn't quite happen that way. While Johnson was physically mature enough to play, he had a long way to go as far as learning what it took to succeed at the SEC level. He had a decent freshman year at middle linebacker, making 29 tackles in 13 games, but it was a far cry from what many people had projected.

Johnson can see now that the expectations were probably unrealistic.

“It was never a physical problem with me, just a mental thing,” Johnson said. “Looking at it now, with all the things I had to learn, and with all the work you have to put into it, the film work, studying the playbook and all of that, I definitely think the pressure was probably a little too much.”

Fast forward two years, and Johnson may finally be ready to live up to the hype. After starting just three games during his freshman and sophomore campaigns, he enters his junior year as the Wildcats' starter in the middle. At a leaner and muscular 243 pounds, he's in the best shape he's ever been in.

“It feels good to have the job and being able to grow with it and grow with the guys around me,” Johnson said. “I'm real excited and I think I'll have a great season.”

The light actually started coming on for Johnson late last season. He missed a game after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery on Oct. 22, then returned with a six-tackle performance against Vanderbilt. He had five tackles, a tackle for loss and a pass breakup against Tennessee before closing out the season with four tackles, an interception and a pass breakup in the Music City Bowl.

Johnson then spent the off-season training rigorously. He'd go to morning class, then work out for two hours. He'd have an afternoon class, then work out for two more hours. Then he'd finish the day with a late-night run.

“It was a lot of work, but I just dedicated myself to it,” Johnson said. “It was all about football and school this summer, and it's paid off. I can move like I know I can. I can do a lot of things I couldn't do at 268. I'm excited to live up to the player that I know I can be.”

UK Coach Rich Brooks said Johnson's progression level has been about what he expected.

“I think anytime we get a four- or five-star guy, everybody thinks they're going to be the salvation of program,” Brooks said. “Rarely do you see a guy come in and dominate as a freshman, especially at middle linebacker. Micah had five-star talent, but you've got to make the transition to college football. He started playing like an outstanding player last year, and I'm looking forward to watching him play this year.”

Lining up with Johnson at linebacker are two senior veterans, Braxton Kelley and Johnny Williams. Kelley spent his first three seasons in the middle before moving to the weak side to make room for Johnson.

Williams lines up on the strong side and will also move up to defensive end when the Wildcats go to the nickel package. He'll be backed up by junior Sam Maxwell, who's played in 25 games with three career starts.

“We've got an experienced group of starters,” said linebackers coach Chuck Smith. “Now we've just got to develop some depth.”

Junior Mikhail Mabry and Ronnie Sneed are fighting for time behind Johnson with junior Michael Schwindel and freshman Danny Trevathan backing up Kelley.

As for Johnson, he's very goal-oriented for 2008.

“110 tackles or more, nine tackles for loss, at least two picks, while the defense allows 14 points or less,” he said.

If that happens, those lofty expectations will finally have been met.

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