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MailTribune.com
  • COLLEGE FOOTBALL

    Johnson seizes opportunity

    Oregon State linebacker stepping up his play for injury riddled Beavers
  • CORVALLIS — For two seasons, Jabral Johnson grappled with limited playing time. The Oregon State linebacker, who was stuck behind D.J. Alexander on the depth chart, helped out on special teams and spelled his classmate for the occasional play.
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  • CORVALLIS — For two seasons, Jabral Johnson grappled with limited playing time. The Oregon State linebacker, who was stuck behind D.J. Alexander on the depth chart, helped out on special teams and spelled his classmate for the occasional play.
    But Johnson didn't complain. Deep down, he knew he'd eventually get a chance to prove his worth.So Johnson took many of the necessary steps to improve: asking questions during film sessions, studying the playbook, pulling coaches aside for pointers.
    When opportunity arrived sooner than he could've ever expected, Johnson seized the moment. He filled in admirably at strongside linebacker for two games while Alexander recovered from a knee injury. And when weakside linebacker Michael Doctor suffered a potentially season-ending foot injury against Hawaii, Johnson learned a new position in seven days.
    His early performance, which includes a team-leading 24 tackles, has met rave reviews. Teammates called him a leader. Defensive coordinator Mark Banker touted Johnson as "one of our most consistent players without a doubt this season." Head coach Mike Riley said he is "really proud" of the Lawton, Okla., native.
    "It makes me feel good," Johnson said after practice Tuesday. "When my time came, I was prepared. It seems like it panned out perfectly."
    Reaching that point required patience. After recording only five tackles as a true freshman in 2011, Johnson entered last season intent on adding muscle. He downed protein shakes, crammed in extra meals and lifted regularly after practice.
    "I thought it would be a good thing for me," he said, "but it turned out negative."
    He grew to a "pudgy" 6-foot-1, 235 pounds, and started getting winded during practices. Alexander cobbled together a 58-tackle season as the starter, leaving little use for Johnson outside of blowout situations and special teams.
    So he headed into the offseason with a simple aim: earn a regular spot in the rotation. After all, Alexander and Doctor were already the clear starters at the outside linebacker spots.
    Johnson trimmed down to a chiseled 228 pounds, improved his endurance and started fall camp eager to learn. And about 10 days into practice, Alexander injured his right knee while chasing down running back Storm Woods. Johnson, the only strongside linebacker with experience, started logging extended time with the first team in practice.
    "That guy was hungry for it," Alexander said. "He watched film, asked questions. He knew what he had to do, and he did it."
    Johnson's nine-tackle showing against Eastern Washington was one of the Beavers' few positives during an Aug. 31 defensive meltdown. The following week, he was midway through another solid performance when Doctor approached him in the locker room. The senior had injured his foot and knew he could miss a significant chunk of the season.
    "It's time for you to step up," Doctor said. "Handle business."
    The next day, he had surgery on his left foot and learned he would miss at least six to eight weeks.Johnson started studying the intricacies of weakside linebacker — a position he hadn't played since high school — while Alexander completed his first full practice in more than three weeks that Monday.
    But Doctor, the team's leading tackler in 2012, didn't just play weakside. He was the team's middle linebacker in nickel and dime packages, which meant he called signals and directed the defense. So Johnson stepped into the unit's top leadership position. Those first few practices, Banker said, Johnson seemed a bit overwhelmed. He overthought the role.
    "I was kind of worried for him," Alexander said.
    Johnson spent hours after practice each day last week reviewing film with linebackers coach TrentBray. And when he stepped onto Utah's Rice-Eccles Stadium field Saturday, Johnson felt oddly relaxed. He developed a rhythm and tallied 10 tackles, two more than he totaled over his first two collegiate seasons.
    "It's great uncovering a guy like that, another leader on the team," said Alexander, who returned to OSU's starting lineup against the Utes. "For him to step up like that, it's been phenomenal."
    But Johnson isn't satisfied. He wants to best the 11 tackles Doctor recorded against EWU. He wants to aspire for greatness.
    "The main thing I'm trying not to do is get complacent with it," Johnson said.
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