Conference USA

Gulfport’s Chris Johnson has become a force on the WKU D-line

Western Kentucky University defensive lineman Chris Johnson (3) stands over Alabama receiver Calvin Ridley (3) during the game on Saturday Sept. 9, 2016, at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
Western Kentucky University defensive lineman Chris Johnson (3) stands over Alabama receiver Calvin Ridley (3) during the game on Saturday Sept. 9, 2016, at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa, Ala. WKU Athletics

Leaving Gulfport High School, Chris Johnson flew under the radar for FBS programs in the region and landed at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College.

It turned out that two years spent in Perkinston was likely the best move the defensive tackle could have made.

Johnson grew into a formidable lineman at MGCCC and signed with Western Kentucky in 2016.

In July, Johnson was named to the Preseason All-Conference USA Team.

“I took a lot of pride in that,” Johnson said recently in a phone interview. “It shows that all my hard work is starting to pay off. But it’s only the beginning, I can only go up from here.”

It’s been an impressive progression for a player who admits that not many college coaches showed interest as he was wrapping up his career Gulfport.

“Gulf Coast is the best thing that could have happened to me,” he said. “I still love Gulf Coast and I still talk to the coaches. I wouldn’t be where I am today without them.”

“I got stronger in the weight room, faster on the field. I got conditioned. That’s the reason I’m still in shape today. Coming from high school, I wasn’t in great shape. They whipped me into shape.”

Johnson had a strong sophomore season at MGCCC, putting up 37 tackles as the Bulldogs finished as the runner-up in the South Division.

Johnson committed to WKU over Troy and decided against switching to Southern Miss when the Golden Eagles’ staff came in late during the recruiting process.

Fast start

Johnson made an immediate impact at WKU as a junior, registering 43 tackles (20 solo) and 12 ½ tackles for negative yardage in 2016. He helped lead the Hilltoppers to their second consecutive C-USA title and a 51-31 win over Memphis in the Boca Raton Bowl, finishing the season 11-3.

He shrugs off the idea that he was somehow overlooked by other top programs out of MGCCC.

“A part of me feels like that, but I don’t try to get caught up in all who all has these offers or who has that,” Johnson said. “I know Western Kentucky is the place for me. We win championships and we’ll continue do that. I feel like I’m in the right spot.”

Johnson and the rest of the Hilltoppers will be working under a first-year head coach, Mike Sanford Jr., after Jeff Brohm left to take over the program at Purdue.

Sanford, 35, served as the offensive coordinator at Notre Dame the last two seasons after working in the same role at Boise State in 2014.

“I got to know him pretty well in the spring,” Johnson said of Sanford. “He’s a laid back guy. He’s pretty cool.”

When it was pointed out that Sanford’s predecessor, Brohm, seemed far from a laid back guy, Johnson disagreed.

“Coach Brohm, he’s laid back too,” Johnson said. “He’s an O.G. He’s a lot older than Coach Sanford. He’s been there, done that.”

Even with Brohm and company now at Purdue, Johnson doesn’t expect WKU to miss a beat this season in Conference USA.

“We’re still very talented on both sides of the ball,” he said. “We have receivers that can go get it and running backs that get it done. We’re still fast and furious on defense.”

When it comes to goals for the 2017 season, Johnson has set the bar high.

“I want to be first-team all-conference at the end of the season,” he said. “We want to win a conference championship and get to a New Year’s Six bowl. At the end of my season, I’d love to be picked for the Senior Bowl so I can showcase my skills.”

Patrick Magee: 228-896-2333, @Patrick_Magee

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