Kendall Johnson came into his freshman season at Nevada knowing he was fortunate to have a veteran-laden secondary to help him adjust.
Three months later, Johnson — a former resident of Lafayette and graduate of St. Thomas More High School — found himself playing tour guide for his teammates during their first few days in New Orleans as they prepare for Saturday’s New Orleans Bowl.
He was leading the same people he’d followed the entire season.
“I went to get some fried shrimp at Landry’s (Seafood) and I took some of the guys,” Johnson said. “For some of them, that was their first time eating gumbo, and it was a cool experience.”
In his first season, Johnson has 22 tackles, four passes defended and an interception. He said he’s enjoyed his freshman season at Nevada and that he is extremely happy with the decision he made to play football in Reno.
“It’s been fun. My first semester has been great,” Johnson said. “I couldn’t have asked for anything else. College is a little more demanding than playing in high school, but I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”
Johnson wasn’t recruited by UL-Lafayette, the Wolf Pack’s opponent in Saturday’s game. But he said not being recruited by the Ragin’ Cajuns doesn’t bother him. That might be true, but Nevada coach Brian Polian said it’s still exciting for any player when they get to play their hometown team.
“We got him in on a visit and we fell in love with him,” Polian said. “I really wasn’t paying much attention to who was or wasn’t recruiting him, but I’m sure when a guy has a chance to come home and play his hometown school, I would imagine that’s pretty cool.”
Johnson said he will have plenty of family at the game, including his parents, UL-Lafayette alumni Melissa and Kendall Sr.
There’s no doubt where their allegiance will lie Saturday.
“They’re going to be going for the Wolf Pack.” Johnson said.
Polian said he has learned that taking away opponents’ greatest strength, or making them play “left-handed,” is the easiest way to beat them.
The second-year coach said he believes eliminating the Cajuns’ patented ground attack, ranked 26th in the nation in yards per game, will be key in slowing them down.
“Clearly, our job is to stop the run first,” Polian said. “If we’re looking at this opponent and saying, ‘How do we make them play left-handed?’ It’s stopping the run. That’s just what we have to do.”
Running backs Elijah McGuire and Alonzo Harris have combined this season for 309 carries, 1,902 yards and 26 touchdowns this season.
“They’ve got two really good running backs, and when they get going, it’s hard to stop them. But that’s going to be our job come Saturday,” Nevada linebacker Jonathan McNeal said.
McNeal, a second-team All-Mountain West selection, will be key in stuffing the Cajuns’ rushing attack from his middle linebacker position. McNeal racked up a team-high 95 total tackles this season (5.5 for loss), forced two fumbles and had five double-digit tackle games.
Polian — a first-hand observer of a team with a potent running threat at quarterback — also said stopping quarterback Terrance Broadway from making big runs will be as important.
“It’s not just the two running backs; their quarterback is the third-leading rusher,” Polian said. “They can be explosive in their running game, so we have to keep the in front of us and tackle well.”
Day of adjustment
Polian held his team’s first practice in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Tuesday.
“I wanted to make sure we sweat. The first thing I wanted to do was come out and run,” Polian said. “I’m pleased with today. I just wanted to come out, get our legs loose and get them on the dome turf. We threw some pat-and-gos so they can get used to the lights.
“We’re not used to playing with lights that high. We don’t have stadiums this big in the Mountain West.”
Polian allowed the team to enjoy their first night in New Orleans on Tuesday, adding that he conducted practice with that in mind.
“I gave them some free time last night and I have no doubt we’re sweating out a Hurricane or two,” he said.
While many of his players had dreams of venturing onto Bourbon Street or walking around the French Quarter when they made it to New Orleans, Polian said he had a much more simple plan to get his kicks.
“My idea of fun is a lot different from theirs,” Polian said jokingly.
Polian, a self-proclaimed “history nut”, said that his No. 1 priority was to visit the National World War II Museum and see some of the historical monuments throughout the area.
“I was thinking about making it a team activity, but I decided to let the guys have their fun,” Polian said. “I’m can’t wait to see all the exhibits and everything at the museum. Everybody I’ve talked to said that it’s great.”