Former WR Johnson tackling new role for Eastern Illinois

Linebacker Jason Johnson (8) leads the Ohio Valley Conference with 11 tackles a game for Eastern Illinois. Johnson played only one year of linebacker in high school. (Photo by Sandy King)

When Eastern Illinois head coach Adam Cushing is asked to describe sophomore linebacker Jason Johnson’s play, he asks a question in return.

“How much time do you have?” Cushing said with a laugh. “It’s really fun to coach him. He practices exactly how you see him play. When you prepare like that, results come your way.”

Johnson, who starred at Rich Central High School in Matteson, has seen plenty of results in EIU’s four games this spring, which continues when the Panthers (1-3) travel to No. 17 Murray State (4-0) at 2 p.m. Sunday.

On Tuesday, he was named the Ohio Valley Conference Defensive Player of the Week for his 15-tackle performance last weekend against Tennessee Tech. That effort was the most tackles by an OVC player in a game this season.

Johnson also leads the conference with 11 tackles per game.

“It’s incredible to see some of his instincts,” Cushing said. “That’s not the position he played in high school.”

For the first three years of his career at Rich Central, the 6-foot-2, 200-pound Johnson was a wide receiver.

“I had real good hands and ran good routes,” Johnson said. “I was aggressive, and I was good at blocking.”

But when his head coach needed some help on defense, Johnson obliged.

In his one season at linebacker, Johnson won the Southland Football Conference Defensive MVP award by piling up 92 tackles, 12 tackles for loss and three sacks.

“Once the season was over and I saw that I was leading the conference in tackles, I knew I was going to start getting some (recruiting) looks,” Johnson said. “I probably wouldn’t have been here (at EIU) if I didn’t switch over. I would probably be at a (Division II) or NAIA school.”

Jason Johnson

The hardest part of becoming a college linebacker was not knowing the position as well as others. Johnson admits he has learned a great deal from Eastern linebackers coach Adam Gristick, who was a three-year starter for the Panthers from 2012 through 2014 and made nearly 200 career tackles.

“I really didn’t know a lot of the fundamentals until I got here,” Johnson said. “Coach Gristick has taught me a lot. I can see my progress from freshman year to now, and I’m a lot better.”

Cushing said one of Johnson’s best traits is his all-out effort, both on and off the field.

“The first thing that’s incredible about Jason is he shows up in everything,” Cushing said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s lifting, film, football practice, he has a get better mentality. He’s a perfect picture of a guy who loves everything about the game of football. From the moment he wakes up in the morning until the moment he goes to bed, he’s thinking about football and how to make himself better.”

Johnson is part of a young group that has made the EIU defense better. Of the team’s 22 defensive players on the two-deep roster, 17 are freshmen or sophomores.

“Everybody has bought it, and we’re really aggressive,” Johnson said. “We like to run to the ball.”

Another thing Johnson likes, according to Cushing, is the physical nature of playing linebacker.

“He’s just a guy that loves the contact,” Cushing said. “He embraces everything about it. He’s always running to the football.”

News and notes

Winning its first game of the season last week against Tennessee Tech was a nice reward, according to Cushing. “It’s absolutely critical for the guys to see their hard work pay off,” he said. “Going forward, there’s a little bit of a monkey off your back (feeling).” The victory is the second in Cushing’s two seasons as head coach. … In his two starts this season, freshman quarterback Otto Kuhns has completed passes to eight different receivers. “That’s been the biggest key to his success,” Cushing said. “He’s taking what the defense is giving them. He’s at the point where he trusts everybody to make a play.” Kuhns is completing 56% of his passes with four touchdowns and two interceptions. … Murray State is 17th in this week’s FCS Coaches Poll and is off to its best start since 1995. “Undefeated is undefeated,” Cushing said. “I had them higher in my poll. They play really good team football.” The Racers have the No. 1 scoring offense in the OVC at 27.2 points a game and the second-best rushing offense (165 yards). On defense, Murray is allowing 289.2 yards a game, the second-lowest total in the league.

Where to find the game

EIU’s road game against Murray State will kick off at 2 p.m. Sunday on ESPN+ online. The radio broadcast is available at WEIU.net.

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