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AMES — While the Iowa State football team slogged through a trying season two years ago, Mike Johnson was nearly 1,500 miles away wishing he could be there.
The redshirt freshman safety was signed as a member of the 2014 recruiting class and should have arrived that fall, but academic issues kept him at home in Clearwater, Fla. He would be a greyshirt.
Family struggles made the separation from football even tougher. Johnson spent his days working at a local YMCA mentoring children, but counted down the days until he could move on.
It’s two years later and Johnson is where he should be, but with a bonus: he’s starting at safety.
“It is crazy,” Johnson said of his journey. “I think about it all the time. I get mad about it sometimes because I should have worked then (on my academics), but I’m working now so I can’t look back at that.”
After spending the fall of 2014 at home, Johnson arrived on campus the next semester and went through spring practices before redshirting that fall. After the new coaching staff was ushered in and Johnson could finally begin his eligibility, he wasn’t going to waste an opportunity.
Johnson isn’t a towering presence at 5-foot-11 and 195 pounds, but is in a position to be Iowa State’s leading tackler come season’s end. He is third in tackles with 17 and would be the third-straight freshman to lead the Cyclones in tackles after Kamari Cotton-Moya in 2014 and Brian Peavy in 2015.
“I feel like I’m playing good,” Johnson said. “I feel like I just need to stay calm because sometimes I might not get the play and over exaggerate that I don’t know what to do so I might just call something. I just need to stay calm, that’s it.”
It wasn’t easy to stay calm in that first game against Northern Iowa, though. Johnson admitted he was a little taken aback by the speed after not playing in a game for two years, but settled in as the night progressed and recorded five tackles.
Last week against TCU, Johnson led the Cyclones with nine tackles and has shown defensive coordinator and safeties coach Jon Heacock maturation with each passing week. Amidst all the interchangeable parts in the secondary of Iowa State’s 4-2-5 defense, Johnson has been one of the constants.
“He started out rough (last week), I took him out, he went back in and played like crazy the rest of the game,” Heacock said. “I was pleased with that. That doesn’t happen a lot of times to a young guy. If they struggle early and things get going fast and that game was going really fast. He settled back down and went right back in and played. It never fazed him.”
The work ethic Johnson realized was missing in high school and forced him to greyshirt hasn’t lacked in college and hasn’t gone unnoticed by coaches. As the Cyclones finish up their last non-conference game against San Jose State before moving into a pass-heavy Big 12, Johnson is maturing at just the right time.
“It’s Sunday morning and I’m here at 7 a.m. and he’s here watching film and that says a lot about who he is,” said Iowa State coach Matt Campbell. “I’m really excited about Mike Johnson. Is he perfect? No, he’s a freshman. It’s never perfect for him, but he’s worked really hard and he’s made some really big plays.”
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