Senior center Terry Johnson was surprised when he didn’t see a big, fat ‘D’ attached to his name after coaches graded out the film from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette’s 48-20 loss to Louisiana Tech last week.
Johnson’s individual performance graded out better than he expected, but he still felt like he failed in Saturday’s game thanks to the offensive line’s difficulties.
“My individual performance was good, but as a whole it was not good,” Johnson said. “All that came down to me and my direction.”
Looking strictly at the box scores, it’d be difficult to discern how exactly the Cajuns have struggled on the field from an offensive line standpoint. Quarterback Terrance Broadway has been sacked once in two games, and the Cajuns are averaging well more than 5 yards per carry as a team.
But there have been noticeable cracks, particularly in the pass protection, where Broadway’s elusiveness and throw-aways have saved the Cajuns in the sacks-allowed department. That weakness was exploited by Louisiana Tech defensive coordinator Manny Diaz’s exotic blitz schemes.
The key, Mark Hudspeth and the players along the line said, is getting the line to play as one cohesive unit — something that comes only with experience playing side-by-side.
“We have chemistry, but the chemistry that we have is more off the field,” senior guard Daniel Quave said. “We just have to translate it on the field. Just to trust that we have each other’s back.”
Though he’s only been a center for a couple weeks after moving there from left guard during fall camp, Johnson knows that it’s his responsibility to make calls and adjustments on the field.
He has taken it upon himself to get the unit to play better together, though both Hudspeth and Broadway defended Johnson from his own high expectations Tuesday night.
“Terry is in it for the right reasons, he’s a good person,” Hudspeth said. “He just feels partly responsible, but he’s no more responsible than anybody else. He played well at times. And at times, as a team, we didn’t play well.”
Coming into the season, the Cajuns offensive line was supposed to be one of the team’s strong suits. But even though four of the five linemen started last season, the line has had its share of difficulty playing together, a responsibility Johnson has taken personally.
“Daniel Quave always told me we’ve got to play as one nickel instead of five pennies,” Johnson said.
The Cajuns need to get all their spare change in order this weekend against a talented Ole Miss defensive front seven.
The main cog is defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche, who gained acclaim as the nation’s top recruit in the 2013 class but has started to come into his own as a sophomore.
“You’ve got to make sure he’s accounted for, that’s for sure,” Hudspeth said. “Nkemdiche, to me, is one of the most talented guys in the league.”
The 6-foot-4, 280-pound Nkemdiche possesses a rare blend of size and athleticism and will be a chore for the Cajuns to block. He is one of four Rebels to have recorded a sack through two games.
Johnson is impressed, but he’s not going to go into the game just to roll over.
“He’s a good player,” Johnson said. “But I’ve played a lot of good players. He puts on his pants one leg at a time just like me. If he doesn’t? Hey, he’s special.
“He’s … going to be a good challenge for us. But he can be stopped.”
Stopping Nkemdiche and the Rebels’ front seven starts, in part, with Johnson.
He’s the one who makes the pre-snap calls for protections. He’s the one, in his opinion, who needs to step into a larger leadership role to get the offensive line playing at the level it expects of itself. He knows he is dealing with a veteran group, but he’s willing to do whatever is needed.
“If I have to yell, I have to yell,” Johnson said. “If I have to get angry, I have to get angry. It’s all for winning. We all want to win. So I’ll do whatever it takes to win for this program. We owe it to this program.”