A 6-foot-7, 320-pound dancing bear from Sandusky, he was generally regarded as the best offensive line prospect in the country in 1994.
He delivered on that promise by stepping right into the starting lineup and forming a formidable tackle tandem with veteran Korey Stringer on a line that paved the way for a new starting tailback named Eddie George to rumble for 1,442 yards.
A year later, Pace’s presence on the left side gave George a reliable place to run whether opponents knew it or not. He took advantage with a single-game school-record 314-yard outburst against Illinois and a then-school-record 1,927 yards on the season.
George won the Heisman Trophy, something Pace narrowly missed doing a year later. Pace had to settle for his second Lombardi Trophy in as many years as well as the Outland Trophy, then the Rams chose him with the No. 1 pick in the following NFL Draft.
Not only was Pace a powerful blocker, he did his job with a certain grace and speed that has rarely been seen. It carried over to the next level, too, as he played well enough in 13 seasons to be elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
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Of course, Johnson was in grade school when Pace retired, but he confirmed having watched his highlight videos.
“Best college offensive lineman in the country, hands down, ever — NFL,” Johnson said. “His NFL film was pretty much the same.”
Johnson may not shy away from wanting to follow in Pace’s footsteps, but he knows a lot has to happen for him to get on the field as a freshman — let alone doing it in the dominating style Pace did.
“Really the spot’s open for anybody,” Johnson said. “It is who is going to go in there and take the job. I feel like if I’m in the playbook enough and I am putting in the work in the weight room, in the field and trying to be in the front when we are running, then at that point it’s up to the coaches. I can make that goal as realistic as I want it to be.”
While left tackle Thayer Munford is due back for his senior season and third year as a starter, the right tackle spot played capably by Branden Bowen last season is vacant.
To win it, Johnson will have to jump over Nicholas Petit-Frere, another five-star prospect who signed two years ago as the No. 1 offensive tackle in the country. Petit-Frere made it into the two-deep last season and started the Northwestern game in place of an injured Munford.
“I can’t come in with that ‘next year mindset,’ that I’m going to be a backup guy this year and next year is my time,” Johnson said. “I can’t come in with that. I gotta come in here with the mindset, I want to take somebody’s job, because then that’s how I’m gonna work the hardest, you know what I mean? not try to work like a freshman, but work like an older guy. And then at that point, coach is gonna decide what’s best for the team but again, I determine, you know, how much time I get on the field through my work.”
He has impressed his roommate, fellow offensive lineman Luke Wypler
“He’s a hard worker,” Wypler said. “I feel like that’s one thing that probably you could say about every kid in this class. Everybody works hard. We’re all very focused, and we just want to win.”
That Johnson isn’t content to watch from the sidelines this fall did not come as a surprise to head coach Ryan Day, either.
“I know that’s his mindset right now, he’s going to have to do that,” Day said. “But you don’t know where that goes or anything like that until we get into August. Right now it’s learning the playbook, learning where to go to class, learning all that stuff, learning the calls. He’ll do that.
“He’s very detail oriented. He wants to do it right. He’s very determined. And we have high hopes for him.”