Terry Hoeppner’s philosophy on playing true freshmen is one that Geno Johnson loves.
The first-year IU head coach has already shown he isn’t shy about leaning on his first IU recruiting class. He played three rookies Friday night against Central Michigan, and he took seven on the trip.
One of those three to see the field was outside linebacker Geno Johnson, IU’s second-string weakside linebacker who played on all of the Hoosiers’ special teams units in Mt. Pleasant.
“The future is now – that’s Coach Hep’s philosophy,” said Hoosier linebackers’ coach George Ricumstrict. “Anyone who we feel can help us win, we’re going to play them.”
Hoeppner and Ricumstrict obviously think that the 6-2, 200-pound Johnson is a player who can help the Hoosiers improve on last year’s 3-8 mark. A graduate of Bartow Senior H.S. in Bartow, Fla., Johnson has been one of many players in the freshman class who has impressed early on.
That’s why the staff passed on the idea of redshirting him, and why he’s a special teams regular. The time might come as early as this week that Johnson will be seeing time at linebacker as well.
“It may come this week (the opportunity to play) – you can never tell,” said Johnson. “I’ll just keep working yard and get myself ready, because that’s all I can do.”
It’s a good bet that Johnson’s time will come sooner rather than later. A gifted athlete with 4.59 speed in the 40, he is exactly what Hoeppner likes in his defensive players – a fast player who can fly to the ball and make plays.
“I think I’m a good player in space because I am fast,” said Johnson.
But speed isn’t the only thing that Johnson brings to the field, according to Ricumstrict.
“He’s really athletic, but he’s also really intelligent,” said Ricumstrict. “I’ve been really happy with his progress, and that’s why he’s work his way onto the field.”
As the season goes along, Johnson is expected to be someone who garners more and more playing time. Ricumstrict said that if you’re a true freshman who winds up on the field, you can expect the IU coaching staff to use you in as many ways as possible.
“If you’re a true freshman and we play you, you’re probably going to be on all the special teams, and when you’re ready you’ll probably get some snaps during the games – some live down snaps,” said Ricumstrict.
Johnson is excited about that opportunity, whenever it should arrive. One of the things that appealed to the third-team All-State pick was the chance to play early at IU.
“Coming in, playing time was a big factor, and I didn’t want to redshirt,” said Johnson. “Then, as (fall camp) was going along, it looked like it was going to happen and that they wanted to save me.”
Some depth concerns at linebacker, coupled with Johnson’s improved play, quickly elevated him from a likely redshirt candidate to someone who made his debut on the very first play of the CMU game – an IU kickoff.
“I was grateful for the opportunity, and I’ll just continue to go out there and do the best I can for the team,” said Johnson.
His best, meanwhile, is already good enough for a spot on the field. As time goes on, he’s expected to develop into a difference maker on the IU defense. He’s one of a handful of Floridians in the 2005 recruiting class who is showing plenty of promise, along with defensive linemen Jammie Kirlew, Neal Jones and Matt Lewis.
“I think all of us can be big parts of this defense,” Johnson said of the Florida quartet. “This recruiting class is a great class.”
Time will tell exactly how good this class is, and Johnson as one of the first members to make a difference on the field for Hoeppner.
“I’ll tell you what – he can help us,” said Ricumstrict. “There’s no question about that.”