Given the great distance he must travel, going home is always a special occasion for Florida linebacker Kylan Johnson. His next trip, he figures, will be off the charts.
“It’s going to be great. I can’t wait,” the redshirt sophomore said.
When he heads back to Dallas for the first weekend in September, all of his teammates and coaches will be right there with him this time. The happy homecoming will be a celebration of family, friends and football — with the Gators playing Michigan right down the road at AT&T Stadium in Arlington on Sept. 2.
“It’s very exciting,” Johnson said. “We’re all looking forward to being in Dallas, playing in Jerry’s World (where the Dallas Cowboys play). It’s going to be an exciting game. I can’t wait.
“Yeah, it does motivate me to work even harder (this summer). I’m going to get to see my family and everyone gets a chance to actually come see me play instead of watch on TV.”
Johnson certainly is familiar with Jerry’s World. His high school team (Dallas Skyline) played its season opener at AT&T Stadium in his senior year. But he knows there will be a much different atmosphere in the stadium Sept. 2.
“There are going to be a lot of people there for this college game,” he said. “I’m really looking forward to it.”
Among the crowd will be numerous family members and friends.
Those who have not seen him play since his senior season in high school may not recognize Johnson at first. When he left Dallas three years ago, he was a rangy, 210-pound safety prospect. He returns as a 230-pound starting linebacker, who is athletic enough and versatile enough to play all three linebacker positions.
Johnson made the switch to linebacker after he was injured during his true freshman year in 2015.
“I had a little injury my freshmen year during fall camp and kind of picked up some weight,” he said. “We needed help at the linebacker positions, so I took the chance and did it for the team.”
It’s turned out to be a good move for Johnson — and the Gators.
When called on last season due to injuries to Jarrad Davis and Alex Anzalone, Johnson responded in a big, favorable way. He started the last five games and played at a consistently high level, making plays from sideline to sideline.
“They always prepared us in practice for situations like that,” he said. “When my name was called, of course, I was a little nervous, but I got over it after a play or two. It was really fun learning from JD and Alex. They made it simple, easy for us. They talked to us on the sideline when I came off and stuff.
“It was difficult when I first made the switch. It was something I wasn’t used to, taking on linemen, being that close to the line of scrimmage. I love it now. I feel like I’m closer to the ball. It’s quicker to make a play now instead of at safety where you have to come from 10 to 12 yards back.”
Johnson isn’t the only young linebacker who started to emerge in the latter half of the season when Davis and Anzalone were sidelined. True freshmen David Reese and Vosean Joseph also stepped up, showing flashes of their playmaking ability.
“We always talked like, ‘I can’t wait until we get in so we can show people what we’re capable of,’ “ Johnson said. “And then when the time came, we did just that. It was a surprise to the fans and other people, but it was kind of like the coaches knew what we can do and we know what we can do.”
Johnson, Reese and Joseph now form the Gators’ starting linebacker corps heading into the 2017 season.
Even though the three made some plays and showed some impressive promise last season, they’re still relatively young and inexperienced. For that reason, many are slapping a question mark on the UF linebacker positions.
Johnson said an exclamation point might be more appropriate.
“I really don’t think it should be a question mark,” he said. “They saw a glimpse of all three of us last year and what we can do. And now we’re putting it all together this summer. It’s going to be great to watch this coming season.”
Johnson said the three linebackers have already forged a strong bond on and off the field.
“I love playing with those guys,” he said. “We all talk outside of football. We hang out outside of football. We’re always together to talk about football. We meet at night. We’re all in a group chat. We’ve got a good bond with each other. We’re really close.
“Vosean is very physical. Reese brings physical also. I bring a physical presence and I can cover. They can cover, too, but we’ve all got our strengths and weaknesses. We all can do the same things. There’s really not a difference in us, and that’s what I like about our linebacker corps. We’re all the same.”
Johnson said there will be no drop-off at linebacker in particular and the UF defense in general, even though the Gators must replace seven players who were taken in the NFL draft in April.
“Of course not. Naw,” he said. “We’ve got great players here. We’re not going to drop at all. I see it every day. I see the work we put in, what we do off the field and off. There’s no drop-off at all.”
The Gators will have a chance to start showing it in the opener against Michigan, practically in Johnson’s backyard.
“A lot of these dudes from Florida haven’t been to Dallas, or Texas period,” he said. “I talk about Texas all the time. Now, they’ll get to experience it. I can’t wait.”
Contact Robbie Andreu at 352-374-5022 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Also check out Andreu’s blog at Gatorsports.com.