So needless to say, it’s a bit of a surprise that Johnson now stands as the New Orleans Saints’ likely starting fullback heading into this season. But that is indeed the case after the 6-foot-2, 240-pounder has taken advantage of his opportunity to replace injured starter Erik Lorig during training camp.
Johnson’s 3-yard touchdown reception last Saturday night against the Indianapolis Colts showed off his versatility as an agile pass-catcher and a powerful hitter. Johnson drove through linebacker Erik Walden to reach the goal line.
"I like to show that I can do it all and that I'm not like a stiff, not-able-to-move fullback,” Johnson said. “You know, I can run, I can catch and I can also block. So I try to show that throughout my game."
Johnson played fullback early in his career at Tennessee before switching to linebacker. So teams looked at him in both roles as he came out of college. When he didn’t make the Ravens’ roster, the Saints later signed him the following January with the intention of switching him to fullback. He spent most of last season on New Orleans’ practice squad.
Johnson figured his best chance to crack the Saints’ roster this year would be through special teams. But when Lorig suffered a leg injury a week into practice, he became the No. 1 fullback.
The extent of Lorig’s injury is still unknown, though he hasn’t even appeared on the sidelines during practice yet. And Johnson will still have to fend off 13-year veteran fullback Greg Jones, whom the Saints signed in the wake of Lorig’s injury.
But so far, Johnson has done his best to make the decision easy for the Saints’ coaches.
"I knew nothing was going to be easy. I knew that I was going to have competition, and when they brought in Greg, I just knew I needed to keep playing well. I knew they weren’t just going to give me the starting spot,” Johnson said. “We’re still competing for that spot. And I’m just trying to go out there and show them what I can do and hopefully give them enough confidence that I can play.”
Coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees certainly had enough trust in Johnson to target him on that touchdown play Saturday -- which is no small thing, considering it was Brees’ first drive of the preseason, and he was no doubt eager to cap it off with a touchdown.
"He’s done a great job all camp. Obviously Erik Lorig going down was tough, but Austin has stepped in and done a great job whenever called upon in whatever role, whether that be the fullback position or special teams, you name it," Brees said. "He's one of those lunch-pail guys, comes to work, ready to do whatever's asked of him. He’s done that very, very well."