SELFLESS SUPERSTAR: Ivan Johnson sparks Brunswick High from both sides of the ball

Nov. 2—Ivan Johnson sparks Brunswick High from both sides of the ball

Ivan Johnson has more than proven he has the juice with the ball in his hands.

The Brunswick High senior's 439 rushing yards are the third-most on the team, he's run for four touchdowns, and he's done it all on just 43 carries.

Fast, strong, physical, cerebral, Johnson has all the traits of a star running back, but his humbleness, humility and leadership has led him to the defensive side of the ball, where he's spent the past three years playing an integral role in the secondary during one of the best stretches in program history.

Since Johnson stepped into his role as the starting safety as a sophomore, the Pirates are 28-5 with a defense that has held opponents to fewer than 15 points per game over that span. Individually, Johnson has 145 tackles, an interception, and a pair of fumble recoveries to his career ledger.

Not bad for a natural running back.

Johnson played in the offensive backfield his entire life leading up to high school, but growing up close to Brunswick defensive backs coach Willie Bolden, he knew he was eventually destined to play in the secondary.

Still, there was only so much preparations Johnson could make before being thrown into the fire as a second-year player, especially one taking over for a Division I recruit.

"I had to make sure I did everything — watch film, study the teams, all of that," Johnson said.

His immediate predecessor was Devin Lafayette, who signed with Northern Illinois, and the lineage of Brunswick High defensive backs includes NFL standouts Darius Slay, Justin Coleman and Tracy Walker.

But Johnson wasn't concerned about living up to the players before him. In fact, recognizing his potential, the previous generation of Pirates has imparted their wisdom down to the burgeoning talent.

"They actually helped me," Johnson said. "Slay helped me, I work out with Slay sometimes. Devin helped me too my freshman year."

One of the top athletes in the program, and a multi-event competitor in track and field, the transition wasn't difficult for Johnson from a physical standpoint. He notched 41 tackles, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery while excelling in run support, but he was far from satisfied.

"It was a good experience, but I had a lot to work on," Johnson said. "I had to improve on my sophomore year man coverage wise. But it was a pretty good experience."

That has not been an issue for Johnson any longer as he routinely makes plays in coverage against tight ends, in the slot, and over the top. One of Johnson's early-season highlights featured him snagging away an interception in the end zone on a jump ball against The Bolles' School's Connor Cox, a 6-foot-5 tight end committed to South Carolina.

And his work in the run game hasn't wained a bit. Screaming down into the box to thump the opposing running back is his favorite part of playing defense.

"I had to put on some more muscle weight after my sophomore year," Johnson said with a smile. "I was skinny."

A first team all-region member as a junior with 60 total tackles, Johnson had already met and exceeded all expectations at defensive back, but circumstances opened up an opportunity at his original position the following spring.

Brunswick graduated four seniors who combined for 2,248 rushing yards and 39 touchdowns, and an injury to rising sophomore Jamarious Towns left some question marks regarding depth in the running backs room.

Running backs coach Gregg Richardson had some conversations with Johnson about moving back to offense, and eager to help the team however he can, Johnson began taking snaps and learning the offensive playbook.

However it didn't take long for him to return to form.

"It just came natural," Johnson said. "It came back naturally while I was working with the running backs during summer, getting my feet back right and all that."

In Brunswick's season opener against Andrew Jackson (Fla.), Johnson carried the ball nine times for 80 yards while playing his usual dependable role as the leader of the secondary.

"He's played a lot of defense in his time here, and we probably should have played him more on offense, but he's definitely the spark you need," said Pirates head coach Garrett Grady. "He can come in, rip off a few runs, gain a lot of yards, maybe a big play here and there, but also he's commanded the defensive secondary.

"He's physical, pound-for-pound probably one of the strongest guys in the weight room."

It's no secret that there lies more glory with offensive skill positions. Johnson could have spent his prep career with the ball in his hands in a different scenario, with a different program.

Ask Johnson now, and he is a defensive back at heart. Splitting time on offense is just one more way he can make a positive impact.

"He wants to win, he cares about this team," Grady said. "He's been playing with this senior class for a long time. He played at Jane Macon with these guys, played rec football here. He cares a lot about his team, and he's got a good relationship with the whole coaching staff, whether it's offense or defense. He's just a great character kid. He's definitely all about his family."

And Johnson has done everything he can to get Brunswick to this position — 9-0 with an opportunity to win its second straight Region 2-6A title Friday at Glynn County Stadium in a matchup against Effingham County.

When he's not giving the Pirates' run game a jolt, Johnson has also taken his play at safety up another notch, recording 44 tackles, three tackles for a loss, an interception, and fumble returned 68 yards for a score.

The only thing that has slowed him down is some early cramping, a problem that was promptly resolved after two games with some extra conditioning work.

"After practice, defense will do sprints and all that, but then right after, I go to the running backs, run the sand pit, pull the tires, put in that extra conditioning," Johnson said, before begrudgingly admitting he is now the best-conditioned player on the team.

Heading into the regular-season finale and onward, Johnson is peaking on both sides of the ball.

A week ago, Johnson racked up 112 rushing yards and 12 tackles — both season highs — in a 28-7 victory over Evans.

"His vision when it comes to running back is unbelievable," Grady said. "He's a powerful runner, but he's also got the moves to make somebody miss. He was our player of the game last week — he led the team in tackles and he led the team in rushing yards. That's pretty special."