Spring is always a time when young players and walk-ons have a chance to make a mark.
Among those that have turned heads for Nebraska so far this spring, several are on the offensive side. Names like running back Brody Belt, wide receiver Wyatt Liewer, offensive linemen Hunter Miller, Trent Hixson and AJ Forbes have been mentioned in recent weeks by coaches and teammates.
A name to keep close in this particular conversation: redshirt freshman inside linebacker Joey Johnson.
The Gretna native plays a position that lacks depth on the Husker roster, particularly this spring, after the trio of senior Mohamed Barry and juniors Collin Miller and Will Honas. There are several talented young players -- Nick Henrich is already on campus and Garrett Snodgrass and Jackson Hannah arrive this summer -- but Johnson's pushing 12 months as a head start. Not only that, but he’s made strides across the board since arriving last summer.
“I think that’s a part of our deal is we have to make those type of guys into good football players,” inside linebackers coach Barrett Ruud said last week. “All you’re looking for is, kind of like when I was coming up, that skill set that is sitting there. Usually when you’re a walk-on from Nebraska, that desire is kind of built into you and then it’s just a matter of having the tools to work with.
“He’s a guy that has a lot of natural athleticism. His biggest deal for him was just getting bigger, stronger, faster in the weight room and he’s already starting to do that.”
Indeed, Johnson is listed at 6-foot-3 and 235 pounds on Nebraska’s spring roster. Last week during a portion of practice open to reporters, he ran to the sideline on an option pitch and roped down senior Wyatt Mazour for a loss.
“At any level, there’s a lot of great high school players that are 5-8 and it’s just tough to make him into a linebacker,” Ruud said. “When you’ve got a guy who’s 6-3 and long and has those natural tools, that’s part of what Nebraska was about for a long time was taking the skeleton and making into a finished product. We take a lot of pride in that and we’re planning on doing it again.”
Ruud said Johnson could have played outside, too, which is what he did in high school. His combination of intelligence and athleticism, though, makes him perfectly suited to play inside.
And Ruud is emphatic: Johnson has bright days ahead.
“He’s going to play a lot of football for us,” Ruud said. “Whether it’s this year, next year or at some point (later), at some point he’s going to play a lot of football for Nebraska.”