Georgia’s Toby Johnson was working with the scout team at the end of preseason camp, and he barely got into the game in the season opener against Clemson. In the next game, he started, led the linemen in tackles and was named the Bulldogs’ defensive captain for Game 3.
So what gives?
“I can tell you,” Georgia defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt said, matter-of-factly. “He didn’t practice very well in the spring; he didn’t practice very well in fall camp. I think he thought he was going to play without practicing very well, and he realized he wasn’t. So he decided to start practicing good. When he practiced good, he played good. So now he’ll get to play more.”
And so it goes with the Bulldogs’ new defensive staff. By all accounts, Toby Johnson is one of the more talented Georgia defensive linemen. This is the same 6-foot-4, 300-pound man who became a Twitter sensation with his standing backflip when he first arrived on campus.
But being the most athletically gifted is not the only criteria for getting on the field for the Bulldogs these days.
“We have a philosophy on defense — practice,” defensive line coach Tracy Rocker said. “When you work hard in practice, you’re going to get rewarded on game day. We saw two weeks of Toby putting forth effort in practice and getting better every day. All of a sudden, it translated at South Carolina … as an individual. We didn’t win the game, but we saw his effort. And I think he saw it and what led to it — practice.”
Johnson earned his first career start based on his practice performance the previous two weeks. There weren’t a lot of defensive standouts for the Bulldogs on Saturday, as Georgia allowed 447 yards and 27 first downs in a 38-35 defeat. But Johnson played solidly if not spectacularly. He finished with three tackles and a 5-yard tackle for loss.
He would have had a quarterback pressure, too, if he hadn’t been flagged for roughing the passer on the play.
“I just wanted to get in guy’s face and scare him a little,” Johnson explained. “I just lost concentration a little bit.”
In any case, the Bulldogs liked what they saw, and Johnson is slated to start against Troy on Saturday.
The prominent role on a prominent team is a long time coming for Johnson. A graduate of Banneker High, he spent his first two seasons at Hutchinson Community College in Kansas. A knee injury his second season was still affecting him when he arrived in Athens, and he appeared in only 10 games in a backup role.
Johnson entered this season feeling like his time had arrived. But he didn’t prepare like it. It wasn’t until he was issued a scout-team jersey and number the week of the Clemson game that he realized exactly where he stood.
“That was a wake-up call,” Johnson said. “It let me know I needed to get my act together. … I know I wasn’t giving them the maximum effort I’m capable of giving. That was just an indication from coach Rocker that nobody’s safe. You’ve got to get the job done, and you’ve got to do it his way.”
Johnson got into the Clemson game only after the outcome was evident. But rather than pout about his circumstances, he set out to change them. Johnson said he practiced harder than ever before the South Carolina game, and he has vowed to maintain that mindset the rest of the way.
The captain designation from the coaches this week validated his approach.
“I want to be a senior leader, and I want to lead by example,” Johnson said. “That’s the big thing we need right now, somebody to step up and be a leader. We’ve got some in the locker room but we need some to lead the guys by example and show them how it’s done.”
In practice as well as in games.