Michael Johnson is multi-tasking these days and that’s OK because versatility demands much and he has much to give.
At 6-7 and 23 years young, his goals in the community and diversity on the field look as limitless as his reach heading into his second season.
“Michael,” says Sadie Moss, director of the McRae Learning Center in Selma, Ala., “is our guardian angel.”
“Michael,” says Jeff FitzGerald, the Bengals linebackers coach, “can get in a three-point stance at defensive end on one snap and we think he can bounce up on the next and play linebacker in a two-point stance. If he can do that, you’ve doubled your billfold.”
Off the field, Johnson is trying to help save a school from financial problems. On the field, he could help give the Bengals defense riches with the same confusing looks that Rex Ryan has used to wreck quarterbacks in Baltimore and New York.
On Thursday, Johnson again worked with both the defensive line and the linebackers in preparation for on-field camps next week, when he starts his experiment at SAM backer. Then he left to put his hand in the dirt to oversee the kind of camp on Saturday that the kids in his hometown have never had.
“There is a buzz in the town about it. There are going to be spectators out there just to watch,” says Thomasene Johnson, his mother who has gone morning, noon and night rounding up the 180 or so registration forms and the 10 sponsors. “Selma is very proud. Michael is from here and he has always said he wanted to give back. We just haven’t had a lot of people do that and people want to see it.”
If Michael Johnson wanted to go to something like the Michael Johnson Youth Football Camp 10 years ago, he had to travel for a couple of hours to a big-time college campus like he did when he went to Auburn. There was nothing like it close to Dallas County. He didn’t meet a pro football player until college. The only pro athlete he ever saw as a kid was A.C. Green, the former Laker who spoke about abstinence at Dallas County High when Johnson was a sophomore.
“Where I’m from kids from the inner city and rural areas are less exposed to pro athletes and top coaches,” Johnson says. “I was fortunate. I played on an AAU basketball team and got to travel and meet people and see what was out there. This is an opportunity for kids who don’t ever have a chance to get out of Selma. I want to increase awareness about what it takes. We’re going to put them through what we go through in a practice (with the Bengals).”
“That’s the way the guys are on this team,” Johnson says. “They don’t mind.”
Neither do two Patriots, linebacker Gary Guyton and defensive lineman Darryl Richard, once Johnson's Georgia Tech teammates. One of Johnson's coaches at Tech is coming from Atlanta and bringing his son. For $25 a camper gets a T-shirt, lunch and a gift bag. If they can’t afford it, and about 30 can’t, there are scholarships footed by Johnson and the sponsors.
Those aren't just bags in an area where about 27 percent of families and 31 percent of the population are below the poverty line. It is a birthday. Or Christmas. Maybe both.
“We’re going to give out awards for things like hustle and attention to detail,” Johnson says. “I want to give them information. Even like getting good grades in the ninth and 10th grade. It does matter. You can’t wait. Schools may get scared off recruiting you. Or don't wait to take the ACTs until 12th grade. Take them early."
When the talk is academics, Johnson can command the field at Selma’s Block Park, otherwise known as Memorial Stadium. That’s where he first played football before his number was retired at his high school about half an hour away in Plantersville. He was No. 1 in his class and last year returned as the commencement speaker.
“Michael Johnson is helping us produce more Michael Johnsons,” says Moss, whose school is struggling to stay open.
McRae has been a staple of excellence in Selma since 1976 and is more than a daycare center. It puts children from 18 months old to second grade on a fast track of learning. They go on field trips and are exposed to such subjects as computers, field trips, music, math, responsive language, receptive language and history. The school information guide says students generally graduate in the top 10 percent of their high school classes and among others has produced two doctors, a lawyer and a doctor of pharmacy. It is open until 5:30 p.m., a godsend for parents scraping to get by.
McRae didn’t produce Johnson. He went to public school, but met Moss when she was his fifth grade counselor. Taken with his academics and athletics, she kept in touch with him and his family. He didn’t forget her. When she became McRae’s director charged with pulling the school out of a financial pit, Johnson offered to help. In February he put up the money for a fundraiser and came down to sign autographs. Part of Saturday’s proceeds will go to the school, which will also have a vending booth at the camp.
“The money helps us in two ways,” Moss says. “It keeps the school going and it also pays for students who can’t afford to pay the $450 each month.”
In a county where the median household income has been $23,370 and the median income for a family has been $29,906, that isn’t many. The school currently has 90 students and Moss figures that most of the families are on welfare or make minimum wage. About 10 families can afford to pay the full rate.
“It’s a point of pride in the community,” Johnson says. “It’s a school that has been in Selma for a long time, and we really have to try and keep it open.”
Johnson says he wants to see change, where money and resources get to the right people. He bristles at inequities, but he prefers to work through the system. Kind of what he is doing at Paul Brown Stadium in his other project as he juggles the switch from right end to SAM. Fitzgerald and his assistant, Paul Guenther, say they are just taking him to the next level after he dabbled in a bit of linebacker last year dropping in some coverages.
“He had a lot on his plate as a rookie, but he’s pulling things from each area,” FitzGerald says. “He’s done well digesting, I’ll say that. He’s got a desire to play the game and contribute as much as he can. He’s got a sense of urgency. He’s an open-minded guy. He wants to learn. We’ve given him a lot and it hasn’t taken him terribly off course.”
If there are a bunch of Bengals that feel they have been falsely labeled before coming to Cincinnati (
“All I know is what he’s been here,” Guenther says. “And he’s done everything we’ve asked him to do. And that’s a lot for a guy so young.”
As FitzGerald says, there is a long way to go in the process. The Bengals aren’t looking to unseat Maualuga, the incumbent SAM, but they want to see if Johnson can do it in certain packages. Can he take on blockers in the running game and cover tight ends while also trying to improve his pass rush and blitzing? They still want to play him as a defensive end, too.
“The biggest change is doing everything out of a two-point stance,” Johnson says. “Being able to get my hips low and go in any direction. And breaking down and getting control of my body.”
The criticism could be, why on some snaps take one of your best pass rushers and have him taking on the run or backing up in pass coverage?
“This is a protection league,” Guenther says. “If they think he’s coming, now the offense is back on its heels when he lines up at linebacker. If he drops, that opens up a seam on the other side for somebody else. And if he blitzes, it puts him on a back. We’ll take him on a back any day.”
It’s the thing that makes sense in Ryan’s morass of chaos. FitzGerald worked for Ryan in Baltimore as his linebackers coach and put all four of them in the Pro Bowl one year. While he senses the Ravens moving to a more traditional format, FitzGerald sees the old Baltimore way in what Ryan has brought to the Jets. He says at the moment, the Bengals scheme is a distant cousin to what Ryan is doing is New York and Johnson is a guy with similar DNA.
That is, if he can do it.
“I’m not comparing him to those players. I’m just looking at the positions he could play,” says FitzGerald of the guys he had in Baltimore. “Depending where he stands up, that could be where Adalius (Thomas) was. Or, if you play him as a down lineman and stood him up a few times, he could be like what Terrell Suggs does. But we’re not far into the process. He not only has a lot to learn, but we as coaches have a lot to learn about what he can do.”
FitzGerald thinks Johnson can do it physically because the key to the transition to linebacker is the ability to sink the hips.
“For a guy his height, he’d be able to use that rising up against a tight end or a tackle coming out of a three-point stance,” FitzGerald says. “Now when you stand a man up, there’s a big question right there. Do those people have the flexibility to bend or can he get into that position and be comfortable? Michael can. He plays low. That is going to help him to do the things we need him do at the position.”
There will be questions. Can a pass rusher play downhill?
“I can do whatever they ask me to do,” Johnson says.
It may be a different task, but it really isn’t all that different than what is going on in Selma this weekend.
“Michael has always been very goal-oriented,” Thomasene Johnson says. “I think that’s what he’s trying to show at the camp.”
The MJ93 Foundation motto would be a nice preface in his playbook for next week: See it first. Vision for success.
“You have to see what you want and go about getting it,” Johnson says. “You’ve got to know what you want before you try to get what you want.”
It sounds like on these next few snaps this month at home and on the road, he wants an all-out blitz.