Sooners’ Johnson positions self as high draft pick

Posted at: 03/14/2013 1:09 PM
By JEFF LATZKE

(AP) NORMAN, Okla. - While his teammates were sprinting as fast as they could in front of NFL scouts and working up a sweat throwing and catching passes, Lane Johnson had little to do during Oklahoma’s pro day.

Nearly all of Johnson’s work Wednesday was already done on a unique journey from being a player without a position to a first-round NFL draft prospect.

Just two years ago, Johnson was trying to break into the Sooners’ rotation at defensive end, having already switched from junior college quarterback to tight end. In 2011, he reluctantly made the move to offensive tackle.

That started him down the path to the pros. Johnson says even he’s surprised at how fast everything has changed. He was being told he’d be a second- or third-round pick before the Senior Bowl, and now he could go in the first half of the first round.

"I never thought it was going to happen, but everything is going by so fast now," Johnson said after making an early exit from the Sooners’ indoor practice facility. "Just trying to grasp it all is kind of difficult."

Johnson redshirted in 2010 after transferring to Oklahoma, initially slotted as a tight end after he had played quarterback at Kilgore (Texas) College. He had also been a free safety in high school back home in Groveton, Texas. When tight end didn’t work out, he got a chance midway through the season to move to defensive end. But that wasn’t a good fit, either. He found himself struggling to keep weight off and never making his mark.

When he was approached about making yet another position change during spring practice two years ago, he initially resisted. As it turned out, it would be his last switch _ and one that finally put him where he belonged. Maybe his rapid rise in the draft process is payback for all that bouncing around he had to do just to get there.

The Senior Bowl was his big breakthrough, and he followed that by posting the best broad jump (9 feet, 10 inches) and second-best 40-yard dash (4.72 seconds), vertical jump (34 inches) and three-cone drill (7.31 seconds) performances among all offensive linemen at last month’s combine. That left him without much to improve on when pro day rolled around.

"I got everything accomplished that I wanted to. Now, I just have interviews with teams and stuff like that," Johnson said. "I’m flying out to Carolina tomorrow and everything’s taking place how I want it to. It’s kind of crazy, the whole process went good."

Johnson wound up essentially being a spectator, along with representatives from all 32 NFL teams. With nothing more to do, Johnson left while quarterback Landry Jones was in the middle of a lengthy workout that included a variety of passes to receivers including Kenny Stills, who decided to leave the Sooners after his junior season to enter the draft.

Safety Tony Jefferson, another junior leaving early, was among those who participated in defensive back drills after Jones’ throwing session. Still nursing a hamstring injury he suffered the day of his combine workout, Jefferson did not redo his 40-yard dash.

None of the other Sooners are getting as much pre-draft praise as Johnson.

"A few years ago, he might have never played a snap here, and for him to be in the position he is just is a good story for everybody else out there to hear how hard he’s worked and what he’s about to come into," Stills said.

Stills, who was one of the fastest receivers in the 40 at 4.37 seconds, said he sent a text message to Johnson to congratulate him after hearing about his impressive combine performance. After seeing Johnson close-up, Stills said he’s not surprised at what has happened.

"With Lane, you see how many positions he’s changed and how his body has changed. To me, he’s not obviously in the same category as LeBron (James), but his body type is one of those guys that can just do it all," Stills said. "You can take him out to the basketball court, you can ask him to gain 60 pounds. Whatever, he’s going to do it.

"Lane’s just done everything he’s been asked, and we’ve known what he’s capable of. His athleticism is pretty much out of this world for a big guy."

Part of Johnson’s package is that he’s relatively new to his position, and there could be more room for growth. He started the last 12 games of the 2011 season at right tackle, then spent most of this season starting at left tackle. Johnson said he was hearing during the season that he could possibly have first-round potential, but he was still considered raw.

"I think when you have athletic ability, it helps out a bunch and technique will come with coaching," he said. "There’s only so much you can do athletically but coaching, there’s always things you can improve on. That’s my main focus right now."

Leading up to the draft, Johnson said he wants to improve his lower body strength and get better at getting his hands on defenders before they can do it to him. He’s still waiting to find out if he’ll be invited to New York for the opening night of the draft on April 25. If not, he’ll either put together a party around Norman or at home in Texas.

"The hay’s in the barn," Johnson said, "so now you just kind of sit back and see what happens."

(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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