But after stellar performances in last weekend’s victory over Holy Cross, both Johnson and the entire offensive unit go into this week’s home opener against Brown facing raised expectations.
Johnson, a 6’ 2” sophomore out of Tustin, Calif., spent his freshman campaign watching from the sidelines. After not appearing in one game last year, he was eager to take advantage of any opportunity that came his way—even if it meant switching positions.
Coming into camp this year, Johnson was listed as the backup right guard—and didn’t even appear on the depth-chart at center.
But after starter Andy Smith sprained the MCL in his left knee—suffering the exact same injury that sidelined the junior last year—Johnson was told last Wednesday that he would get the starting nod.
“The coaches had me working at center a little bit in the spring and in fall camp, so I had a little experience,” Johnson said. “I’ve played a lot more at guard, but I was just excited to have the opportunity.”
Johnson’s performance was nearly flawless in his first varsity game—with not one bad snap and only minor missed blocking assignments.
More importantly, he successfully made the transition to calling out the blocking schemes for the entire offensive line.
“The biggest change, besides obviously having to snap the ball, is having to call out the plays,” Johnson said. “I had to go from just listening, as I would at guard, to reading the defense and making correct calls.”
Perhaps the person that most appreciated Johnson’s play was the man he replaced. Smith—who will likely be out three to five more weeks—was impressed with Johnson’s quick mastery of the position.
“Will has done a great job in learning the blocking schemes and plays,” Smith said. “Especially since he was playing guard most of this last spring and during preseason camp. He comes off the ball very well and packs a good punch. For a sophomore, he is doing a great job with his footwork and technique.”
Johnson helped solidify a largely retooled offense that was trying to make a good first impression. Junior quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick—with his record-setting day—and junior wide receiver Brian Edwards carried the headlines after the game, but Harvard coach Tim Murphy realized the importance of the sophomore center’s contribution.
“The kid, in his first college football game, at such a technically important position, did a very, very solid job,” Murphy said. “We couldn’t have been as offensively explosive without his contributions.”
Johnson and the rest of the offense face a bigger challenge this week as they contend with a very talented Brown (1-0) defense. The Bears held Albany to only three points and just 99 yards in the air in a 21-3 victory last week. Junior linebacker Anjel Gutierrez had seven tackles and a 20-yard interception return for a touchdown, earning Ivy League Defensive Player of the Week honors.
“Brown is very quick on both sides of the ball,” Murphy said. “We know they’ll key on Fitzpatrick, but our offense should be balanced enough to spread the ball around.”
On the other side of the ball, 6’ 2” sophomore running back Nick Hartigan will be the primary threat in Brown’s offense.
Last week he ran for 126 yards, shouldering the majority of the offensive load.
But though the Crimson can expect Hartigan to get plenty of touches this Saturday as well, his luck may not be so good.
Harvard captain Dante Balestracci and his defense—which only allowed Holy Cross’s back to combine for 50 yards rushing—weren’t waiting for him on the other side of the line last weekend.