Rocky Mountain College has received outstanding play from some exceptional linebackers in the past.
Names like Ted Reiter, Mike Andy and Travis Salter quickly come to mind.
During last Saturday’s 52-30 Frontier Conference victory over Southern Oregon University, Josh Johnson, a big, physical middle linebacker from Tampa, Fla., looked like he’s ready to give those Battlin’ Bear greats some company.
The 6-foot-3, 255-pound junior was right in the middle of it all as Rocky rallied from an early 10-point deficit to run its overall record to 3-0 heading into Saturday's showdown at Carroll College.
The triumph over SOU earned the Bears the program’s best start since 1998 and a No. 19 ranking this week in the NAIA Top 25 poll.
It also put the spotlight on the 27-year-old Johnson, who made several big plays for the Bears against the run and pass. He seemed to always be around the football, using his speed, power and size in finishing with 11 tackles and four pass breakups.
"I just try to have my teammates' back at all times," Johnson said this week before a practice. "Anything I could do to bring energy to the game or any plays I could make, I just want to do it for my teammates."
With his hustle and intensity, Johnson helped turn the game around in the second quarter as the Bears climbed out of a 17-7 hole by rattling off 31 unanswered points against the Frontier newcomers.
SOU, running and passing, owned the game's opening quarter, scoring points on all three possessions and piling up 188 yards.
"We just had to get it figured out," Johnson said of Rocky's sluggish start. "We had to get the scheme figured out, what they were doing. Everybody just buckled down."
He said the Bears didn't make any major adjustments in finally getting the Raiders under control. "We just had to get into the flow of the game," Johnson said.
That flow eventually turned into a tidal wave of defensive stops and points.
Rocky’s offense, led by quarterback Bryce Baker, had a number of “wow” plays during that second-quarter onslaught. However, Johnson and the defense also forced the Raiders into a couple of quick three-and-outs, held them to just 75 yards and started a string of seven consecutive punts.
"We can definitely build on this," Johnson said. "It was a great performance. Everybody should just know that we're resilient and we're not going to quit no matter what."
Johnson was in on several tackles as the game took a dramatic turn — and nearly had an interception, too.
In the final minutes, he was still making plays, batting a pass in the end zone into the hands of safety Eric Buer to provide the victory with another highlight.
“Well, shoot, he’s a good player,” Rocky coach Brian Armstrong said of Johnson afterward. “Big players make big plays at big times, hopefully, if they’re worth a darn. That tells me he’s a good player. When your best players play the best when they’re needed, that’s some indication.”
A glowing review, for sure, but for Johnson it was all about getting to celebrate with teammates.
"Just winning, to be honest with you," he said of what he enjoyed the most about the Bears' home opener. "That was the biggest joy. When the team came together and we finally started playing how we were supposed to be playing from the opening whistle. That's the enjoyment.
"I like to see all my teammates making plays. It's just fun to be out there when we're playing like that."
Fellow linebackers Jacob Barit and Travis Bertelsen finished with 11 and 10 tackles. Barit also broke up a couple of passes.
"He takes a lot of pride in what he does," Bertelsen said of Johnson. "We respect him a lot. He works hard every day."
This is Johnson's second year with the Bears. He originally signed with the University of South Carolina in 2003 and was out of football for a few years before arriving at Rocky in early 2011.
Johnson started as a defensive end for the Bears last fall before suffering a torn meniscus in his left knee against Carroll in the second game of the season.
Johnson missed three games — and then came back as a linebacker.
"I love it, actually," he said of his new position. "As a defensive end you're more on one side of the field. At linebacker you get to run sideline to sideline, so I just feel like it's a better position to play. I just like it more."
Johnson is 10 pounds heavier than he was a year ago but feels a bit stronger and just as quick. He said he worked over the offseason to read defenses quicker and strived to "make more plays for my teammates."
"Every week we're just going to just keep trying to improve, offensively and defensively," Johnson said. "Hopefully, late season we hit our stride."
Saturday at No. 12 Carroll will provide an early litmus test.
The Saints are the reigning 12-time conference champions and last year's national runner-up. Carroll (1-2) has lost its past two games, but Johnson still sees a lot to tackle on Saturday.
"We're really excited for the challenge," he said. "We're ready. They've got a pretty good team, and we're just ready for the challenge. It's their home opener, so we need to go in swinging."