KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Gary Johnson isn’t going to lie. He wanted to hear his name announced during the NFL Draft.
“It’s a childhood dream to get your name called,” Johnson said.
Seven rounds passed, but the linebacker who led Texas in tackles during their Sugar Bowl championship season went unselected last month. He had been projected as a late-round pick and hoped his speed, showcased in a blazing 4.43-second sprint at the NFL Combine, would trump a smallish frame for his position at 6-foot, 226 pounds.
“I got down on myself a little bit because I thought I should have been drafted,” Johnson said. “But that was out of my control.”
Johnson’s future remained in doubt briefly. About 15 minutes after the final pick, his phone rang. The team he’d hoped to hear from was on the line. Johnson signed a free-agent deal with the Chiefs.
What makes Kansas City potentially the right place?
Start with a defense that’s essentially in reset mode, with a new defensive coordinator in Steve Spagnuolo and position coach in Matt House, a new 4-3 base and a load of new personnel. It’s seems like an ideal team, and time, to make an impression.
Also, Johnson knows this team, or at least the Chiefs teams that included one of his favorite players, fellow Longhorns product and former inside KC linebacker Derrick Johnson (no relation).
As Gary Johnson prepared for his pro future, he leaned on Derrick Johnson, the Chiefs’ career tackles leader who last week signed a one-day contract to retire with his original team.
Their position and college connect the Johnsons.
“We talked once or twice a week,” Gary Johnson said. “That’s my mentor, my favorite linebacker ever.”
Derrick Johnson’s advice upon learning Gary would be headed to Kansas City was to arrive with a free mind and determined work ethic, and the Chiefs newcomer relished having an advocate.
“Not many guys have a chance to talk to someone like Derrick,” Gary Johnson said. “I soaked in as much as I could.”
Whatever Derrick Johnson, the team’s first-round pick in 2005 who spent 13 seasons with the Chiefs, said to the rookie, it helped.
Gary Johnson worked his way into some first-team snaps at the Chiefs’ rookie minicamp, which concluded on Monday — although he didn’t have the opportunity to flash some of the aggressive and physical play that earned him a spot on the all-Big 12 second team last season. These were helmet-and-shorts workouts, after all — not full contact.
At Texas, Gary Johnson lived up to his Twitter handle, “I Hate QBs and RBs,” by recording 90 tackles, 16 1/2 tackles for loss, 6 1/2 sacks, eight quarterback hurries, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery. He logged some of his best games against top opponents like Oklahoma.
Speed has always been part of Johnson’s game. He was Alabama’s 5A 100-meter champion in 2015, logging a 10.59.
“It allows you to get outside and cover tight ends, slots and running backs,” Johnson said of his speed.
From high school, Johnson enrolled at Dodge City Community College and excelled as an inside linebacker, finishing with a school-record 215 tackles over two seasons. He also came up with 11 1/2 sacks and five interceptions in his junior college career.
Before minicamp, Chiefs general manager Brett Veach expressed praise for Johnson and Middle Tennessee linebacker Darius Harris, who couldn’t participate in camp because of an injury.
“We’re excited about the speed Johnson brings,” Veach said.
And Johnson was excited about being in Kansas City and the prospect of becoming the next Johnson from Texas to make an impact at linebacker.