Unsung but not unappreciated: DT Austin Johnson making waves at Penn State

Austin Johnson ripped through the Penn State offensive line two weekends ago and immediately turned his 325-pound body toward the ball-carrier.

He didn’t make the tackle. He didn’t find his name on the proverbial stat sheet. But he did earn plenty of praise after forcing another blocker to step up and slow him down, freeing another defender to make the stop 2 yards in the backfield.

“Good job,” coach James Franklin yelled, patting Johnson on the backside while his teammates patted his helmet. “Negative yardage plays in the four-minute drive!”

That’s become Johnson’s M.O. these past few years: Take on double-teams, wreak havoc and allow others to make plays, all the while missing out on the stats and accompanying Big Ten honors. His fellow defensive tackle Anthony Zettel and MLB Mike Hull -- the players most impacted last season by Johnson’s play -- both earned spots on the All-B1G first team. Johnson didn’t even merit honorable mention by the coaches.

But Johnson just shrugged when asked about the missed numbers and accolades. He almost prefers it this way.

“To some of the people who watch Penn State football, maybe I’m under the radar,” Johnson said. “But I’m just trying to do the best I can. And Zettel’s getting his stats up and all that, so I’m good. I’m fine with it.”

Johnson finished the 2014 season with 49 tackles, six TFLs and one sack. He didn’t finish within the top 10 in any Big Ten category. But his defense wound up No. 3 in rush defense (100.5 yards per game), Zettel was second in the conference with 17 TFLs, and Hull led the B1G with 140 tackles.

It’s difficult to deny his ability. Despite his lack of a presence on the stat sheet, the redshirt junior has shown enough to merit a No. 76 draft ranking among players in his class, a comparison to Penn State’s best-ever DT pairs and a No. 11 ranking among 2017 defensive tackles. Even without the numbers, he’s one of the best -- and most unsung -- linemen in this conference.

“There’s no doubt that he gets overlooked by everybody right now because, just by the statistical thing, he didn’t have a lot of sacks or TFLs,” Zettel said. “But just look at the production he does for the whole defensive line, especially me included, last year.”

Johnson is a laid-back redshirt junior who’d rather spend time playing Call of Duty than talking about his numbers or basking in attention around campus. He loves the fans, but feels awkward when the occasional student yells “Yo, 99!” on his way to class. He’s low-key that way; he’d just rather walk, bob his head to music and save that kind of attention for after the game.

That’s always been him. He was a no-name recruit out of Richland (New Jersey) St. Augustine who avoided the national spotlight and collected just a handful of scholarship offers. He wasn’t even rated by ESPN. But he didn’t care then about his lack of accolades -- and he doesn’t care now.

“He’s just always been like that, ever since we were little,” said Johnson’s sister, Kennedy, who plays basketball at Michigan State. “He’s never been worried about what people think about him, he’s just worried about himself. That’s something he’s really taught me.”

After rotating between the hardwood and gridiron in high school -- he didn’t even like football until 9th grade -- he eventually realized football was his calling. He pinned his Penn State letters to a bulletin board, close to his two Michael Jordan posters, and told his sister that one day he’d be running out of that Beaver Stadium tunnel.

Even she didn’t believe the kid who had offers from the likes of Syracuse and Villanova would play for the Nittany Lions. Then he committed on the spot June 25, 2011.

“I guess I’m under the radar,” Johnson said with a laugh. “But that doesn’t matter to me because this is always where I wanted to go.”

Defensive end Evan Schwan praised his finesse at 6-4, 325 pounds. (As a high school hoops player, Johnson once hit 5 3s in a game as a power forward.) Center Angelo Mangiro commented on his strength. (Coordinator Bob Shoop agreed: “He’s a warrior in the weight room.”) Linebacker Brandon Bell complimented his quickness. (Franklin agreed, last year calling him the most athletic player he’s ever seen at that weight.) And, unprompted, both Zettel and running back Akeel Lynch labeled him a “future NFL draft pick.”

Johnson has obviously captured the attention of these Nittany Lions, even if he doesn’t get much love outside the program. So, when summer turns into fall and no-name practice jerseys are traded in for the real thing, keep an eye on Johnson. Or don’t. He doesn’t much care.

“As long as I keep working hard, someone’s going to notice,” Johnson said. “And that’s how I’ve always been.”