Austin Johnson became a notorious figure across the Penn State corner of the internet just by giving his verbal commitment to play for the Nittany Lions. In the already-bizarre world of recruiting coverage, Johnson was one of the most divisive commitments in recent memory. During the late spring and summer of 2011, Penn State was quickly filling its class with highly-touted recruits, putting together one of the best recruiting classes in some time (a class that would eventually fall apart later in the year as part of the fallout of the Sandusky scandal). While Johnson was a three-star recruit, his offer list was sparse, and many felt that he was just not of the caliber of the other commitments preparing to head to State College. The debate lasted for months- on one side, the idea of using a scholarship on Johnson signaled the absolute demise of Penn State Football for decades to come. On the other side, the gist of the argument was that Tom Bradley and Larry Johnson Sr. had a terrific track record of developing elite defensive linemen, and if they saw something in Johnson that merited a scholarship offer, then obviously he has tremendous potential.
If you were part of the latter, more measured group, please give yourself a pat on the back, thrust your arms in the air and scream "I WAS RIGHT!!!!" Johnson is now a hopeful NFL first round pick who will be remembered among the many greats to play on the defensive line at Penn State, and the second-best player on the 2015 team.
In hindsight, Johnson and Bradley made an extremely wise choice by taking a chance on a somewhat unheralded lineman out of New Jersey. While he earned significant playing time as a redshirt freshman in 2013, Johnson really began to make his presence known in 2014 by quietly putting together a terrific season in his first year as the full-time starter at defensive tackle. Johnson was a key component and catalyst for a Penn State defense that was among the very best in all of college football, all the while playing in the giant shadow of Anthony Zettel, who was putting together weekly highlight reels that oftentimes seemed to defy the laws of physics.
In 2015, Johnson completely emerged as one of the best defensive tackles in the nation in his own right. During his redshirt junior campaign, Johnson was nearly unstoppable. Not only did he have the size and strength to be a space-eating monster in the interior, he also had the exceptional athleticism to find his way to the ball and make plays all over the field. Despite playing in the interior, Johnson finished third on the team in tackles with 78 on the season. With an incredible burst for someone pushing 330 pounds, he would often find his way into the backfield in a blink of an eye, collecting 15 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks with two pass deflections.
Johnson was also responsible for Penn State's play of the year, which may have single-handedly clinched a victory against San Diego State in week three. With a sputtering offense sans Saquon Barkley and Akeel Lynch and a gassed defense on the ropes, Johnson managed to pick up a loose fumble and sprint 71 yards down the sideline for the first touchdown of his entire football career. It was an incredible feat of athleticism for such a large man streaking down the field like a slot receiver in the open field, and assuredly had any scouts in attendance frothing at the mouth.
In a move that surprised no one, Johnson decided to forgo his final year of eligibility to declare for the 2016 NFL Draft immediately following the loss to Georgia in the TaxSlayer Bowl. He will leave Penn State with not only plenty of on-field accolades, but also with his bachelor's degree in journalism that he earned in three-and-a-half years. It's been a long and strange journey for Johnson, that should continue with him dominating on Sundays for years to come.