By John Davis, Oxford Citizen
A passion for the game of football is what separates Lafayette offensive tackle Eli Johnson away from others on the field each Friday.
Johnson is set to play his final season with the Commodores in 2015, preparing as hard as he ever has to ensure the team continues to have success.
“Eli genuinely loves playing football and because of that passion and that desire to play, his work ethic is top notch,” Lafayette coach Eric Robertson said. “He is out here constantly out here to improve some area of his game. Whether that’s his feet or hand placement, his strength or speed, he is working on those areas in order to make himself a better player, which in turn makes Lafayette a better football team.”
Johnson has been a member of the varsity squad since he was a ninth grader. As good as he was out of the gate, there is no substitute for experience, Robertson said.
“I think every year adds a year of maturity, not necessarily physically. I’m talking mentally and just things like that,” Robertson said. “He’s grown up and he’s becoming more of a man. The choices he makes, the decisions he makes, I think that’s where we’re going to see improvement with him.”
This time a year ago, Johnson was still trying to get in shape coming off a torn ACL he suffered in the 2013 MHSAA Class 4A state title game. He had a successful junior season, but the feeling is that he will be even better as a senior with more than a full year to have recovered from his surgery.
“I think he’s back 100 percent with his strength from that ACL tear. I just don’t think he had the lower body strength that he had his sophomore year,” Robertson said. “He still moved extremely well and he rehabbed great. He looked quicker, but I just don’t think his strength was where it was at the end of his sophomore year. He does some auxiliary stuff, training, with Jason Wilson, who does a great job with our athletes. Eli does a great job on top of what we do. He’s still aggressive and he’s a real good high school football player.”
Johnson, who has already committed to play at Ole Miss, will move around some on the field this fall, according to Robertson. He is pegged as the starter at right tackle, but he can play guard and he may even see some snaps at center. Johnson was out on the field with his teammates as they took part in 7-on-7 drills, snapping the ball.
“Ole Miss projects him as a center, but I can see him getting in and playing some guard with the way he works,” Robertson said. “He can be an option for us at center. He works on it and everything goes back to his work ethic. He knows one day that he might play there, so he’s been working on that skill of snapping the ball and first steps and things like that. He can definitely be a backup there. Matt Toles is a solid backup there. Coming out of the spring, Drew Tapp is our starter, but Matt and Eli both could snap.”
Focus was a word Johnson used to describe his feel on his senior season. He is graduating early from Lafayette in order to join the Rebels in January.
“That’s the plan right now. There are some classes I have to pass that will be pretty tough, but everything should be good to go with that,” Johnson said, who added he has worked hard in the weight room. “I’ve done a bunch of agility drills to get my footwork better and just tried to work on every part of my game.”
The Commodores won’t have to go far in relation to playing for a state championship since the game will be held at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium in December. Having a chance to play for the 4A title is the goal of Johnson for his teammates.
“We had a real good spring with a lot of competition in,” Johnson said. “I was real happy with our spring, so I’m happy with where we are going into the year.”
Johnson has never wavered on his commitment to the Rebels, even though schools have continued to recruit him. Last June, when Ole Miss was playing in the College World Series, Johnson visited the University of Nebraska to check everything out. That’s as far as he got to the Cornhuskers because he has always been a fan of the Rebels, and it’s hard not to join up when you get an offer like that.
“I’m as solid as I could be. When I got that Nebraska offer, it was a big deal for me because they have good tradition,” Johnson said. “I really wanted to take a visit. There wasn’t really any serious interest there. It was just me exploring things. Duke got on me this fall and they talked with me but that’s been about it.”
Hard work is something Johnson is relying on to ensure he has a good senior season.
“I’m going to do what I’ve been doing and play as hard as I can and hopefully the results will follow, which I think they will,” Johnson said. “I feel as good as I’ve felt. I’m starting to get stronger and really starting to get my legs back under me. That’s a big deal. I’m a lot stronger because this time last year, I was just starting to get into the weight room again off my knee surgery. I’m just ready for August and to play some ball.”