His size can be misleading.
Austin Johnson stands 6-foot-4 and weighs 313 pounds, making him an often immovable force anchoring the Penn State defensive line.
But Johnson isn’t your typical 313-pound lineman.
“Probably the most athletic 315-pound guy I’ve been around,” Penn State coach James Franklin said.
And his imposing figure doesn’t necessarily offer any insight into his personality.
“I always call Austin ‘The Gentle Giant,’” said Tammy Johnson, his mother. “People get intimidated by his look, but he’s very laid back.”
His size first kept him off the football field during his childhood. It was also the primary reason he finally tried the sport in seventh grade.
Johnson now uses his size to take on double teams that free his teammates to make plays, a role he’ll be happy to play once again Saturday at noon when the Nittany Lions take on Maryland at Beaver Stadium.
The New Jersey native doesn’t have a sack and has the fewest tackles for loss (2.5) among Penn State’s starting defensive linemen this season.
But that doesn’t bother him.
And it doesn’t diminish his role, either.
“It’s funny because a lot of times he may not get the stats that maybe our linebackers or our other defensive linemen are getting,” Franklin said. “But a lot of it is (him), he’s the cause of it.”
Johnson’s ability to disrupt opposing offenses starts with his size and strength, easily seen in his massive arms and 313-pound frame. But it is linked just as much to his rare athleticism, first developed on the basketball court. And Johnson’s selfless mentality allows him to shrug off what the statistics say.
He’s more concerned with the play of the entire defense.
“I try to work the best that I can and just do my job the best that I can,” Johnson said, “and that’s all I can do.”
Johnson’s first love was basketball.
He spent many afternoons shooting hoops in the driveway and kept playing when the sun went down, thanks to a light set up near the basket.
“He would be out there all hours from the time he got home from school,” Tammy Johnson said.
“My mom would yell at me to get inside to do my homework,” Johnson said. “That’s how long I’d be outside playing basketball.”
The driveway hoop is where his father would teach him and his sister, Kennedy, the fundamentals. Johnson took the opportunity to pick on Kennedy, who is a freshman forward at Michigan State, when they played against each other.
Johnson tried a little bit of everything, from swimming and golf to tennis and baseball during his childhood. Football was never an option — he was too big to play in the local league due to a weight limit.
So basketball was his sport growing up.
Johnson said he was a big Duke fan, adopting the favorite team of his mother, who is from North Carolina. Johnson became a Syracuse fan after watching Carmelo Anthony lead the Orangemen to the 2003 national championship.
Now, when the Atlantic Coast Conference rivals meet, Johnson doesn’t pick a side.
He’s remained an Anthony fan throughout his NBA career, rooting for the Denver Nuggets and New York Knicks.
“Nobody can stop him from doing what he wants to do,” Johnson said of Anthony. “And that’s kind of what I kind of want to be like.”
Getting into football
His football career nearly ended before it began.
Getting ready for his first practice with the Galloway Renegades proved to be an adventure. Johnson and his mother tried to figure out how to put on all the pads and equipment needed, and he wasn’t particularly excited about trying this new sport anymore.
“It took him, no kidding, an hour to get dressed,” Tammy Johnson said. “At least an hour to get dressed. And by the time he was dressed, he was like, ‘I don’t want to go.’”
His mother told him that wasn’t an option. He needed to finish what he decided to sign up for after a suggestion from a friend’s father. Johnson went to a small Christian school called The Pilgrim Academy with Brad Henson, who is now an offensive lineman at North Carolina.
There was no school football team, and Henson was also too big to play in his local league.
But when they were in seventh grade, they joined the Renegades in a league with no weight limit. Henson’s father, Brad, had played offensive line at East Carolina and suggested Johnson give football a shot with his size.
“That was the first time I played football and I absolutely hated it,” Johnson said. “During seventh grade and eighth grade, I absolutely hated it.”
He said he was a “basketball guy.”
“I really didn’t know anything about it, I just watched it on TV,” Johnson said of football. “I think that’s what it was. I really didn’t know anything about it seventh and eighth grade.”
His mother remembers he didn’t get much playing time his first two seasons. But he kept going to practice.
“I don’t like quitting anything,” Johnson said. “Seventh and eighth grade I just stuck it out. I’m going to play. If I like it, I like it, if I don’t, I don’t because I have a choice of if I’m going to play it in high school.”
Waiting to play
His hatred turned to love for the game by his sophomore year at St. Augustine Prep (N.J.).
Johnson isn’t exactly sure what changed for him. He guesses he just wanted to hit people more. But the more he thinks about it, he remembers learning the game and paying attention to the intricacies of his positions on the offensive and defensive lines.
“I kind of just liked being on the football field and not having to think about everything,” Johnson said. “And just zoning out and having to play the man in front of you.
“I think that’s what I liked the most about it. It’s just man against man and you just got to be the bigger man every play to win.”
Johnson can recall the exact play everything clicked for him as a sophomore.
It was on a fourth down late in the second quarter, and Roman Catholic was driving down the field, trying to score before getting the ball back to start the second half.
Johnson burst off the line of scrimmage and got into the backfield. He used his athleticism to finish the play as he chased down the quarterback along the sideline to make the tackle.
“That was really one of the main plays when I just gave everything I had,” Johnson said.
Football became his top sport that year. He knew he wanted to play college football.
He was a Penn State fan, but Johnson liked to watch any team play at the level he hoped to reach in the near future.
Johnson’s commitment to the St. Augustine Prep basketball team never wavered.
After accepting his scholarship offer to Penn State, Johnson could have skipped out on basketball his senior year to avoid injury like many other athletes do. But Johnson knew his team needed him and he wanted to play.
He was named the Cape-Atlantic Player of the Year and earned all-state honors that season.
“The bottom line on Austin is, we live in a time here where it’s a me-me-me society,” said Paul Rodio, his basketball coach at St. Augustine Prep. “‘I’m not going to play basketball this year because I already signed to go to Penn State.’ That wasn’t Austin Johnson.”
Johnson credits his basketball career as the reason for his impressive athleticism. Rodio said he was shocked by Johnson’s quickness the first time he saw him play at St. Augustine Prep. His combination of speed and strength made him a tough matchup for opponents.
“He was a wide body that ran the floor well,” Rodio said. “So now you see this big kid with huge hands coming flying down the floor making the catch and being able to make a play and then twist his body, contort his body, reverse and twist and turn. He just wasn’t a big, slow football player. He was a pretty agile kid.”
Rodio said Johnson didn’t play with a lot of emotion. But the coach remembers a foul call in a tournament game during his junior year upset the normally laid-back big man.
Johnson was pushed on the play and was fuming when he came off the court. He started to pull at his jersey in frustration and ripped it in half while sitting on the bench.
“I think if I gave you that uniform and said here rip this, you’d have trouble ripping it with scissors,” Rodio said.
Johnson and his teammates captured the state championship with a 71-60 win over Seton Hall Prep that season.
It remains a lasting memory for Johnson.
“That was probably the most fun I’ve had in high school,” Johnson said.
Hard work benefits team
His Penn State coaches see Johnson as a difference-maker at defensive tackle.
Franklin has said Johnson’s play has directly contributed to the success of defensive tackle Anthony Zettel, who leads the team with eight tackles for loss and is tied for the team-high with four sacks.
Johnson stays within the scheme and provides a challenge for the opposing offensive line every week.
“He gives up no movement,” said Brent Pry, Penn State’s co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach. “He has gap integrity. He is a big, strong, athletic guy. He’s very mature. He plays the game the way you need it to be played.
“I think his best football’s still in front of him, but he is a very, very, very solid nose tackle right now that a lot of people across the country would love to have him in their lineup.”
Franklin appreciates Johnson’s positive attitude.
“The thing I like the most about him is every time I see him when he walks in the building or he’s out at practice he’s got a huge smile on his face,” Franklin said. “He’s unbelievably appreciative about being at Penn State and having a great experience.”
But when he steps on the field Saturday, he’ll play with the same mindset that turned a game he once hated into something he loves.
“It’s just a matter of getting down and playing and being a man and not thinking and creating havoc,” Johnson said.