An ankle injury early in Fred Johnson’s sophomore season at the University of Florida forced him to the sideline, and he was forced to watch as his replacement established himself as the team’s best player at right tackle.
Johnson didn’t mope, and when it came time to prove himself again, he was up to the challenge.
The following week, the Gators were playing North Texas when the right guard performed poorly. Johnson had not played guard, but a coach looked at him and sent him into the game anyway.
“They said, ‘Can you do it?’” Johnson said. “I said, ‘As long as I’m on that field, I don’t care. It doesn’t matter to me. I’ll do what you ask.’”
That’s how Johnson began his path to becoming a versatile offensive lineman – a path that has allowed him to score a starting spot in the NFL.
Johnson preached that message in an interview with Crafting Linemen coach Torrian Wilson. It’s a message Wilson repeats to all of his students because, along with Johnson, he knows it gives a player a better chance to make a team and receive more playing time.
Johnson’s backup at Florida, Jawaan Taylor, already had impressed the team during training camp prior to the 2017 season, so when he hit the ground running in place of the injured Johnson, the coaching staff had no reason to take him out.
That could have left Johnson on the outside looking in for much of his career. Instead, he learned a new position and flourished over the next three seasons. When he was a senior in 2018, the Gators limited opposing defenses to 18 sacks, which ranked third in the Southeastern Conference.
Johnson said that although it wasn’t “really that difficult,” it took some work to switch to guard. He said he had to get used to the smaller box in which guards operate compared to tackles and that he had to be more physical because he was facing bigger defensive players on the interior.
“I really honed in on a lot of stuff at guard like where my eyes should be and my hand placements, how many steps to take,” Johnson told Wilson. “It took a little while, but once I got it down I could easily move through left and right guard.”
Johnson wasn’t done changing positions. He went undrafted but landed a spot on the Pittsburgh Steelers’ initial 53-man roster before the 2019 season. Though he didn’t appear in any games before being waived on Oct. 11, he heard the same message of versatility again from Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin.
“Somebody went down in practice and they said, “Fred, you going in at tackle?” Johnson told Wilson. “And I said, ‘Yeah, I guess so. Let’s do it.’”
Shortly after the Steelers let Johnson go, the Cincinnati Bengals claimed him off the waiver wire. He appeared in six games during the 2019 season and appeared in nine of the Bengals’ first 12 games of the 2020 season with three starts. He has done so as a tackle, not his original position as a guard.
He is likely to stick around because of his versatility, which is a lesson he said he hopes young players will learn and use to their advantage just like he did.
“You have to be able to play a lot of positions because you never know what’s going to help you get to that next level,” Johnson said. “You can think you’re a tackle in high school, but you go to college and, boom, you’re a guard and center. Or you go to the league and you can play guard and center and that is going to help you make a roster.”