Boston college football guard Zion Johnson hadn’t stepped onto a football field prior to his senior year of high school, where he played under Caesar Nettles at Riverdale Baptist School in Upper Marlboro, Md. Fast forward five years, and the 6-foot-3 guard has developed into one of the nation’s premier offensive linemen.
At Riverdale Baptist, Johnson earned his team’s Coaches Award in 2016 in addition to being named his squad’s most improved player. But before his arrival to the gridiron, Johnson was a member of the school’s golf team for three years.
“I’m pretty sure my freshman year of high school I was maybe 5’9”, 5’10”, maybe 190 to 200 pounds,” Johnson said in an interview on Packer and Durham. “I played golf eighth grade to junior year. My junior year I was probably around 6’1”, 6’2”, 220 pounds, and I played my senior year at 225 to 230 pounds at right tackle.”
Johnson received interest from just one school as a football prospect, and he chose to enroll upon securing an offer.
For the first two years of his collegiate career, Johnson played at Davidson, an FCS school in North Carolina. In 2018, Johnson was selected to the Pioneer Football League All-Conference First Team, named a HERO Sports All-Sophomore honorable mention, and started in all 11 games on the offensive line, leading the Wildcats to an FCS-best 428.5 rushing yards per game. After transferring to BC in 2019, the accolades started rolling in faster—and they haven’t stopped.
For the first time in his career, Johnson has secured a spot on the All-ACC First Team and was named to ESPN’s All-America team, the 2021 CBS Sports All-America team, the 2021 Pro Football Focus (PFF) All-America team, the American Football Coaches Association All-America team, and the Walter Camp All-America team.
On top of his All-America honors, Johnson will appear in the 2022 Reese’s Senior Bowl.
The Maryland native collected All-ACC accolades for the third time as well and earned himself honors as the No. 1 guard and the No. 32 overall prospect in the 2022 NFL Draft, according to ESPN’s Todd McShay. Johnson was ranked as the No. 2 available guard in the 2022 Draft by ESPN’s Mel Kiper.
The Eagles’ interior linemen, including Johnson, guard Christian Mahogany, and center Alec Lindstrom, were a force to reckon with all season. Mahogany and Lindstrom landed a heap of awards complementary to Johnson’s as well. With the deep contributions of tackle Tyler Vrabel in full health, the crew anchored a daunting rush attack behind running back Pat Garwo III.
Garwo and the rush attack—which had been dormant just a year ago—dominated on offense after a breakout performance at UMass. Garwo accumulated 1,045 rushing yards and seven touchdowns in the regular season, largely on the backs of the offensive line. With Johnson and Lindstrom paving the road for the redshirt sophomore, Garwo rushed for over 100 yards in four games.
Johnson had no difficulty sealing off defenders in 2021 and displayed a textbook collection of hand and foot motions for lateral and vertical pitches. According to ESPN, Johnson allowed zero quarterback pressures in the 2021 regular season and has allowed just one sack in 2,288 career snaps at BC. With only four blown blocks on 756 snaps this season, he’s been ranked as the No. 7 guard with a minimum of 700 snaps in the nation, according to PFF.
In pass protection, Johnson utilizes his robust frame to generate power on the interior fronts while also having ample agility to make quick initial reads on outside obligations. Johnson relies on his size and body control to adjust to moving targets in space at the first and second levels. His initial quickness, and swift acceleration makes for a difficult objective for defenses to pursue in halting the run game.
At 6-foot-3, Johnson lacks the typical length and wide frame of an NFL tackle. Though he spent all 11 games of the 2020 season at left tackle, 2021 saw Johnson at guard, where his aggression and reactiveness enabled him to handle the faster action characteristics of the interior.
In part due to this transition to guard, Johnson’s draft stock skyrocketed. Johnson received an invitation to play in the Senior Bowl in 2020, but he turned down the offer and declined to enter the 2021 NFL Draft in order to return for a third year on the Heights with head coach Jeff Hafley.
Johnson has praised Hafley, whose hiring came one season after Johnson’s transfer to BC back in the spring of 2019.
“One of the huge things he talks about is just confidence, tuning out the noise, having faith in your own ability, having faith in your team, loving the team,” Johnson said of Hafley on Packer and Durham. “I felt like we’ve come closer together, we love this program, and because of that guys are willing to strain harder, to fight harder, to win for each other not just for themselves, and that’s something really special and not something I’d seen since we had coach Hafley.”
Hailing from Bowie, Md., Johnson, along with 12 of his teammates, was set to return home to the Washington, D.C. area for the 2021 Military Bowl on Dec. 27, but the game was canceled due to COVID-19 complications from within BC’s program. Johnson’s career culminates in a postseason of accolades and awards nonetheless.
Featured Image by Tyger Williams / AP Photo