RICHMOND — Dean Hood has never had any doubts about Tyrelle Johnson's potential.
It was evident when Johnson arrived at Eastern Kentucky University, fresh out of Henry Clay High School.
"He had a great suddenness and was a very explosive player," Hood said.
Now a 6-foot, 220-pound fifth-year senior, Johnson is getting his chance to start, taking over the middle linebacker spot once held by Ichiro Vance.
A key will be if Johnson can stay healthy.
After redshirting as a freshman in 2010, he missed the first three games of 2011 because of an ankle injury. He was limited to four games in 2012 by another injury. Last year, he played in all 12 games, with one start, at weakside linebacker.
"You never know when you're going to get injured. You never know when you're going to be able to come back," Johnson said. "I had to suffer from two concussions actually ... But I went the whole spring, didn't have no injuries, no concussions. Felt great. Running great. Head feels good, so I'm just excited to get back and ready to play."
Moving to the middle will be a change. He's now the man making all the defensive calls.
"I used to be a quiet dude, but now you hear my yelling all over the field and stuff," Johnson said. "So that's probably the biggest change, is me having to make all the calls, and everybody looking at me on defense."
The once-quiet dude isn't one to brag. He does allow, though, that he has speed to burn. And he loves to hit.
He is inspired in part by his cousin, Jacksonville Jaguars defensive back Winston Guy.
"I'll say I'm faster than him and he'll say he's faster than me. We'll tease each other a little but, but it's all love," Johnson said. "I always look at his films. I mainly look at ones in practice. I love the way he practices. He really inspires me every day to come out here and give my best."
Johnson says he tries to practice the way he aims to play — hard all the time.
He also likes to be the first one on the practice field so that he can do extra stretching. He recognizes that he has been injury prone, and he wants to take measures to avoid further setbacks.
Already with a bachelor of arts degree, Johnson is working on a second degree in criminal justice. He says he can see himself someday working in the office of an agency such as the FBI.
He has come a long way since his days at Henry Clay, where he began as a basketball player.
"One day in high school a friend asked me if I wanted to play football," he said. "I was like 'I never tried it, but I'll try.' And ever since then, I've been playing football."
He says he knew football was going to be his sport of choice when, in his first game, he made a tackle for a loss.
His joy for the game goes beyond individual thrills, though.
"I love the brotherhood," he said. "It's more than just a team. I love these guys like my brothers. And it's a team thing — everyone's got to be all-for-one. I like that."
Hood sees Johnson as a key cog in the EKU defense.
"If he stays healthy, man, he is a guy that can run, he's a guy that can hit," Hood said. "He's a very intense, passionate football player. That kind of bleeds over onto our other guys. He can really give us that explosiveness that we need at that linebacker position."