LAFAYETTE — Maybe Louisiana-Lafayette’s football coaches knew something when they uprooted Terry Johnson from a comfortable position at left guard, both in spring drills and again this fall.
The Ragin’ Cajuns needed a center, and it didn’t matter that Johnson had never played with his hand on the ball.
The staff knew he had the athletic ability and the football savvy to make the change, and putting him in the leadership position of a talented and experienced offensive line wasn’t a problem. They probably also knew that the Oxford, Mississippi, native had been doing good things with his hands for much of his life.
His paintings and sketches, some of them already published in family-produced books, stand as testament to that.
“He’s always been creative with that,” said father Terry Johnson, Sr., who watched UL-Lafayette’s Friday “mock” game that ended fall camp. “He’s always been the smart and sweet kid who just happened to be 6-foot-2 and weigh 300 pounds.”
The baby of the six-sibling family started at guard for the Cajuns in all 13 games last season and has been a part of the past two 9-4 and New Orleans Bowl-winning teams. His father, a retired Army Ranger, is as proud of his son’s “pancake” blocks as the oil works that hang in their home and the pencil sketches featured in his wife’s youth-motivating books.
“I don’t get involved in the football part,” he said. “I let the coaches take care of that.”
Those coaches moved the former Northwest Mississippi Community College standout to center just over a week ago, giving him just over two weeks to work at the position before next Saturday’s season opener against Southern.
“I’m trying to get used to it,” Johnson said. “Snapping the ball isn’t a day-and-night thing. You have to keep working on that part of it. It’s repetition ... it’s tough but I’m getting better at it. I do have to focus on it, but not so much to where my blocking gets hindered.”
Johnson was a stalwart in an offense that produced 417 yards and 34 points per game last year, and four starters are back in that front wall. But it’s the one that wasn’t back — three-year center starter Andre Huval — that was cause for concern.
Offensive line coach Mitch Rodrigue wanted to move Johnson to center throughout offseason conditioning, and Johnson worked at the position early in spring drills before going down with an ankle injury that required surgery. That was part of a rash of spring injuries in the offensive front — a unit that has had its opening-game starters keep their spots in all 13 games for three straight years.
“We had so many injuries in the spring that we weren’t able to move anybody,” Rodrigue said. “And then (Johnson) got hurt himself. It wasn’t a good time or a good opportunity to do that.”
“I expected it,” Johnson said of the shift to the middle. “Coach Rod told me he thought I had the leadership capabilities to do it and I trust what he says. Before the spring started I was snapping and getting used to it, so I was ready for it.”
Johnson was back at guard to start fall drills, but after a series of auditions at the position, Rodrigue and coach Mark Hudspeth decided to shift Johnson back to center. Junior college transfer Donovan Williams’ improvement at guard made part of that possible, but it was also a testament to the confidence the staff had in Johnson.
“He’s never been a center,” Rodrigue said. “But it’s his intellect. Our center has to be our quarterback on the field, he’s got to get everybody on the same page. I tell our centers all the time, I don’t mind if we’re wrong on our decision, but we need to be wrong together. If everybody takes care of their gap responsibilities and we’re on the same page, we’re right.”
The quick change in the fall didn’t catch Johnson by surprise.
“When they suddenly told me I had the center spot, I wasn’t surprised, but I knew I hadn’t snapped since March,” he said. “It comes with the territory. You have to be an athlete and you have to adjust. When put my hand back on the ball, I guess it kind of felt right, it kind of felt like that was what I was supposed to do.”
It hasn’t been a seamless transition, and Johnson is the first to admit that. But at least he can pinpoint the areas of concern when quarterback Terrance Broadway stands a few yards behind him.
“Most of my bad snaps are always high and to the right,” he said, “so I have to focus on that. But the big thing is the guys next to me trust me. I’m playing next to some smart people that can get be right back on track.”
“Our snaps have been a little inconsistent, but that’s a little bit expected there,” Hudspeth said early in the final week of camp. “We’ve still got two weeks. As a quarterback you have so much to worry about, the last thing you want to worry about is snaps right or left, high or low.
“But they’ll get there.”