For a split second, Shawn Johnson waits. Any less and he’ll be tackled. Any more and he’ll miss his chance. Then, a crease opens. And with a shake of the hips, a juke of the shoulders, Johnson is off to the races.
It’s a familiar scene for Johnson’s Montana State teammates, who’ve nicknamed him Shawn John. It might as well be Shawn Gone. The elusive Johnson is a running back, but he’s best known as one of the nation’s most dangerous kick returners. Truly, he’s perhaps the most dynamic player in the Big Sky Conference when the football is in his hands.
“He wants to score a touchdown every time he touches the ball,” says Bobcats coach Rob Ash, “and anything less than that is a disappointment for him.”
Johnson was the only player in the league to return both a kickoff and a punt for touchdowns last season, and his 31.0-yard average on kickoffs led the Big Sky by far.
Johnson took a kickoff back 100 yards for a touchdown in a win over Northern Arizona, and ripped off a 99-yarder for a TD in a victory over Northern Colorado. His 82-yard punt return for a touchdown against archrival Montana gave the Bobcats some early thrust.
In his first couple years in Bozeman, Johnson had a propensity to dance around too much with the ball. That led to lost yardage and — many times — lost fumbles. But his brilliance now rests with the ability to see a hole and hit it. One cut and go.
That’s when opponents are usually left in the dust.
With the 2014 season starting in just 13 days, the Bobcats expect Johnson to handle a much bigger role in the ground game by taking over for MSU mainstay Cody Kirk. No longer is Johnson just one man: The 5-foot-10, 180-pound senior is now THE man.
“It’s my last year, and I’m going to be the No. 1 guy,” Johnson said. “I’ve got to be the best that I can possibly be. There are doubters that say I can’t run behind my pads because I’m too small or whatever the case may be, but I think I’ll be fine. I think I’m going to do well.”
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It’s been a long road to prominence for Johnson.
His arrival to Montana State from Bakersfield, Calif., in 2011 was the culmination of several factors, not the least of which was a strong recruiting push by Bobcats assistant coach Kane Ioane.
But it traces back further, back to a more difficult time in Johnson’s life when he was living with his aunt while his mother dealt with what were described in a 2010 Bakersfield Californian article as personal and financial issues some 300 miles away in Las Vegas.
Fate is funny. Though they’re separated by 1,100 miles, Johnson holds tight a bond with USC quarterback Cody Kessler, whose family stepped in and helped preserve Johnson’s high school setting, his chance to thrive academically and his opportunity at a college career.
Living on the other end of Bakersfield, a good distance from Centennial High School where he was a burgeoning football star, Johnson struggled through the routine of slogging through practice, doing homework late into the night and waking up extra early to catch the bus to make it in time for the morning bell.
Eventually there came a point when Johnson had to move away from his aunt’s house, facing the prospect of leaving Bakersfield to rejoin his mother in Las Vegas. But he found another option.
“One day after one of our workouts we were in the locker room and I was just messing with my teammates,” Johnson said. “I said, ‘Hey guys, I need a place to stay. I don’t want to have to start over in high school.’”
That’s when Kessler, a budding quarterback prospect, piped up and offered his house. Not long after that, Johnson was ensconced in a supportive environment, and he stayed with the Kesslers — Don, Christie, Cody and a younger son, Dylan — for the remainder of high school.
“It was difficult for him to even get to school,” Kessler remembered. “He lived on the other side of Bakersfield. It was hard for him to get to the bus; sometimes he missed the bus. I think the fact that he had a stable background with my family, staying on him with school and sports, it really played a big part of him graduating and getting into college.”
“They helped me out,” Johnson said. “They helped me to do well in school and get a scholarship … it was great. They’re like my other family.”
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Johnson’s friendship with Kessler blossomed in high school, both on and off the field. As a senior in 2010, Johnson rushed for nearly 1,900 yards and scored 26 total touchdowns.
Kessler, who by that time was one of the most sought-after quarterbacks in the country, threw for 2,800 yards with 36 TDs and just two interceptions. Their coach at Centennial High was former Bobcats player Bryan Nixon.
Kessler said Johnson “was a great player. He helped me out tremendously because he could run the ball so well. We would go out and throw outside at practice, on the weekends … he was always with me. We worked out together, we trained together, everything we did we did together. We were really close, and that transitioned to the football field.”
“Football was a big thing in that family,” Johnson said. “Cody was the big star and I was the unsung hero, you could say.”
Johnson had a number of collegiate suitors, including Fresno State. But he eventually settled on Montana State, and nobody has looked back.
Johnson said he and Kessler remain tight. They check up on each other’s games and statistics, and they speak often over the phone. Johnson laughs about the fact that Kessler’s games, some of which are broadcast nationally, are easier to keep track of.
“We talk from time to time,” Johnson said. “But we’re both busy with football. He’s over there in California and I’m all the way up here in Montana.”
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Johnson rushed for 609 yards and six touchdowns on just 104 attempts last season, averaging a team-high 5.9 yards per carry. You knew it was going to be a good year when he raced 90 yards for a touchdown early in the season-opener against Monmouth.
But now that the record-setting Kirk is gone, Johnson’s workload might double.
More carries mean more hits, and more hits mean a greater toll on his body. Johnson wasn’t 100 percent healthy at the end of last season (who was?) but he grinded through it. How will he respond to getting more touches on offense while maintaining his role in the return game?
Johnson, who will wear No. 4 this season instead of No. 33, insists he’s stronger than he was last year.
“I worked pretty hard this summer with coach (Alex) Wilcox and his amazing, amazing strength and conditioning program, so I think I’ll be fine,” he said.
Said Ash: “The misconception is that he’s a lateral player on offense — a jet sweep guy. He can do that stuff, but we want to give him an opportunity to be the every-down tailback, running inside zone and running north and south, and hopefully finding some creases and making some big plays.
“He’s our first option. I think Shawn Johnson has the ability to be a candidate for offensive MVP in the conference. I really do.”
Ash said Johnson won’t typically handle the ball as many as 25 or 30 times per game out of the backfield. That’s where depth comes in, and the Cats have a ton of it. Johnson’s backups — namely Billings Senior’s Chad Newell, Helena Capital’s Gunnar Brekke and Nevada transfer Anthony Knight — should share a bulk of the work.
In the previous three seasons with Kirk as the primary ball-carrier, the Bobcats averaged roughly 188 yards per game and rushed for 85 touchdowns. With a new quarterback replacing DeNarius McGhee and new personnel running an offense that will utilize more reads in the running game, Johnson will have opportunities to flourish.
“He’s always been the fastest guy on the field, and he expects to make big plays,” Ash said. “And he’s really come a long ways from a maturity standpoint.
“I’m really hoping that during his senior year he’ll finally settle in and be the main man. With Cody Kirk being gone and DeNarius being gone, he’ll really relish the idea of being a go-to guy.”