NEW YORK — Lane Johnson remembered a Saturday night in East Texas in August 2008, when he was a backup quarterback preparing for his first college game at Kilgore College. He played against Fort Scott, a junior college from Kansas featuring an unknown defensive end named Jason Pierre-Paul who entered the game with a back flip.
Johnson could not have imagined he would play Pierre-Paul in the NFL five years later. And even if that scenario was a distant possibility in a fantasy, Johnson would be a quarterback being rushed by Pierre-Paul, certainly not a tackle tasked with blocking Pierre-Paul.
But this is all part of Johnson’s wild ascent. It includes five positions over five years at two colleges. Now his hope is that was merely a prologue to what comes next, when Johnson shoulders the distinction of being Chip Kelly’s first draft pick and the most celebrated pick since Donovan McNabb was booed on draft day in 1999.
“My story has just begun,” Johnson said.
Great but overlooked
Johnson’s story started in Groveton, Texas, a small logging town of just more than 1,000 residents about 90 minutes from Houston. His mother is a social worker at the local prison system. His father works construction for the highway department, and his stepfather was a high school football coach for 20 years.
“It’s just a bunch of hard-working, down-to-earth guys,” Johnson said of Groveton. “Everybody really cares about you. I think when you hear songs about small towns, it’s like people know everything that goes on. They really care for you. A lot of support.”
Johnson’s first love was basketball. He also ran track, threw the shot put and played baseball. If he was going to play football, he wanted to be quarterback. His favorite player was Brett Favre, and he adored the way Favre played. Johnson, who stood 6-foot-6 and just more than 200 pounds, wanted to play like Favre.
That’s what he tried to do as high school student in a graduating class of 33. Johnson earned honorable mention all-state quarterback, but he did not receive a single scholarship offer. Because of the size of the his school, he played in the lowest division and received little attention.
“When you have your superstar schools like Southlake Carroll and Highland Park and places like that in Dallas, it’s easy to get overlooked,” Johnson said.
Football was still at the epicenter of the town’s activity. Johnson compared Groveton to “Friday Night Lights” schools, except kind of on a smaller scale.“ And he didn’t want that high school career to be his last meaningful football highlight.
Without anywhere to go, Johnson enrolled at Kilgore in August 2008, and the other quarterbacks were already ahead of him on the depth chart. He became a starter in the eighth game of the season when the starter was suspended for fighting, but he was replaced in the third quarter.
“It was a really tough year for me,” Johnson said of his year playing quarterback at Kilgore.
He eventually moved to tight end, and prospective colleges came in the spring of 2009 and saw his athletic ability. Johnson’s high school coach played at Oklahoma, so Johnson took a few visits to Norman. He weighed 255 pounds, nearly 50 pounds more than when he arrived. He ran a 4.5 40-yard dash, which opened eyes of college coaches, and he signed with the Sooners.
He moved to defensive end at Oklahoma, but the Sooners needed offensive linemen. Johnson labored to keep his weight at 270 pounds, and coach Bob Stoops asked his strength coach what it would take to get Johnson to 300 pounds and offensive tackle. The answer? ”A cheeseburger and a week.“
Raw and unpolished
Stoops knew the move would work within the first couple of practices. He even told Johnson, “You watch, you’re going to be a first, second-round draft choice.” Johnson continued improving on the field, but it was athleticism during practices that general managers and coaches would see on display at the combine.
Stoops said Johnson always finished 10 to 15 yards ahead of the other offensive and defensive linemen during gassers at practice. And the key for Johnson is that the strides he made in two seasons are just the beginning of what could happen in the next few years. Johnson said the first clip of him as a first-year starter at Florida State show ”a very, raw unpolished player.“
A part of Johnson wishes he could still play quarterback, but Stoops determined Johnson was best at protecting quarterbacks. And in just two seasons, he became a top five pick.
“Nobody ever considers going from a skill position to playing tackle,” Johnson said. “If you’re playing quarterback, maybe you see people going to receiver or tight end. After going to tackle, I just grew into it, and now I feel natural.”
Stoops said Johnson “is not close” to his ceiling. That was the sentiment of Kelly. Johnson will be compared to Eric Fisher and Luke Joeckel, the top two picks Thursday, throughout his career, and the ranking of the players three years from now could be different than it was on Thursday night.
“I think when all of us reach our pro potential, I think mine will be much higher than theirs, to be honest,” Johnson said.
After his final college game, Johnson heard that he would be a third-round pick. Following the Senior Bowl and combine, Johnson started hearing about the first round. In the past month, mock drafts pushed him into the top 10.
”But you can’t really pay attention to it,“ he said. Johnson knew who had the No. 4 pick, and he knew how much the Eagles liked him, even speaking with Eagles offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland hours before the draft.
Johnson wore a gray suit to Radio City Music Hall Thursday but not without the joke of a different outfit. One of Johnson’s friends sent Johnson a photo of Favre, Johnson’s favorite player, wearing jean shorts on draft night. The friend joked that would be Johnson. Back in Groveton, Johnson joked there was probably ”a lot of beer drinking“ in celebration.
And they had reason to celebrate. Johnson was supposed to a mid-round pick, then a borderline first-rounder, then maybe a top 10 pick. Now he’s a major building block despite a limited resume, and his next benchmark on the ascent is proving worthy of that.
”I think even now just proving myself to the fans, to the players, to those people who say, ‘Why would you take someone so inexperienced?’ “Johnson said. ”I’m ready to prove myself.”