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Austin Johnson’s Heroics No Longer Unsung

Redshirt junior Austin Johnson has anchored Penn State’s defensive line since 2013. The Galloway, N.J. native is a huge part of the Nittany Lion defense (both literally and figuratively), and has been for quite some time, but the 6-foot-4, 323-pounder is used to going about his business without copious amounts of hype following him everywhere he goes. That likely won’t be the case for long, though.

Johnson has steadily added to his stat line over the last three seasons. As a redshirt freshman, he tallied 27 tackles while learning from current Tennessee Titan DaQuan Jones. Last fall, Johnson started every contest, including the Nittany Lions’ New Era Pinstripe Bowl OT victory over Boston College. He finished 2014 with 49 tackles.

Johnson currently sits in second place on the team with 54 tackles, including 10 for a loss, 4.5 sacks, two passes defended and broken up, a forced fumble, and of course, who could forget his 71-yard touchdown rumble against San Diego State. Those are gaudy numbers for any defensive player, but let’s remember Johnson is often double-teamed by opposing interior linemen, freeing up teammate Carl Nassib to pace Division I with 14.5 sacks through nine games.

In fact, Sean Spencer’s entire defensive line has produced at an otherworldly clip. Fellow starters Anthony Zettel and Garrett Sickels have also played tremendous football thus far. The unit as a whole has been instrumental in Penn State’s FBS-leading 35 sacks.

Spencer, also known as Coach Chaos, is a huge reason why Penn State’s defensive line hasn’t skipped a beat since legendary recruiter and talent-developer Larry Johnson Sr. left for the same position at Ohio State prior to the 2014 season. Spencer’s high-energy mentality was a key factor in his players’ seamless transition to the new coaching staff. One aspect of the unit in particular has changed under Spencer, and it certainly isn’t going to be Penn State’s tradition of producing top-tier NFL defensive linemen, but rather its adopted moniker as the team’s “Wild Dogs.”

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Johnson (No. 99) routinely finds the opposing team’s backfield.

The group’s success as a whole could very well stem from Spencer and James Franklin’s philosophy of rotating up to ten different linemen throughout a given Saturday. But keeping his starters fresh is just one benefit of Spencer’s thought process. It also allows defensive ends Curtis Cothran, Torrence Brown, and Evan Schwan, as well as defensive tackles Parker Cothren, Antoine White, and Tarow Barney to receive a heavy dose of meaningful snaps.

All of this makes Johnson’s production all the more impressive. Rarely do defensive tackles put up the type of numbers Johnson has racked up thus far in 2015, and the former high school basketball standout continues to get better and better each year.

The question of whether or not Johnson will declare for the 2016 NFL Draft, forgoing his final season of eligibility, won’t be addressed until after the Nittany Lions play their bowl game. Johnson could elect to stay in school for one last season, continuing to cause nightmares for opposing Big Ten offensive lines, or he could potentially start his professional career a bit sooner. NFL draft guru Todd McShay’s most recent big board listed Johnson among the top 32 draft-eligible college prospects.

Regardless, Johnson and the rest of Bob Shoop’s vaunted defense, fresh off a 39-0 shutout of Illinois this past Saturday, are focused on the task at hand: doing the same to Northwestern at Ryan Field on Nov. 7 at noon ET.

About the Author

Ethan Kasales

Ethan’s a senior journalism major who grew up in Lemont, a few minutes from campus. When he’s not covering Penn State sports, you can usually find him golfing or teaching snowboarding at Tussey Mountain. Feel free to email him at [email protected]

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