Johnson finally ready to shine as UK’s starting middle linebacker

“Micah Johnson is the man.”

That was how national recruiting analyst Jamie Newberg described the 6-foot 2-inch, 255-pound linebacker in May of 2006, before he committed to play football at UK.

Every major recruiting site ranked Johnson as a five-star prospect — easily a sure-fire top-five player in the state of Kentucky — and when the Cats landed the Ft. Campbell, Ky., native, fans across the commonwealth rejoiced.

But high expectations parlayed into disappointment when Johnson failed to earn a starting job in his first year. The excitement diminished even more when Johnson settled for splitting time with junior Braxton Kelley at middle linebacker as a sophomore this past season.

Some fans were critical in their treatment of Johnson, but his brother, junior offensive guard Christian Johnson, said he believed the expectations, and everything that came with them, including the negatives, were warranted.

“Honestly I think (the expectations) were fair,” Christian Johnson said. “Our parents raised us with high expectations. They always told us, ‘To whom much is given, much is required.’ ”

But with Kelley moving to weakside linebacker, younger brother Micah is finally ready to shine as UK’s starting middle linebacker.

“I don’t feel like I’ve met them yet,” Johnson said of the expectations surrounding him when he entered the program as a five-star recruit. “Now I’ve learned the defense and it feels good. Hard work has paid off.”

Through his hard work in the offseason, Johnson said he shed 15 pounds for the second straight year. He said the weight loss was more proof of how ready he was to finally start.

“I was just continuing to get in shape,” Johnson said. “It was just positive.”

Those off-the-field positives are translating on the field this spring. Head coach Rich Brooks and defensive coordinator Steve Brown both said they have been pleased with all of their linebackers. In an experienced group, that reflects highly on the maturation of Johnson. But Brown said progress can still be made.

“(Micah’s) good,” Brown said. “He’s played a lot of football for us. He has to learn the little things still. Has to use his power and strength to his advantage. Just a lot of little things.”

All the praise the junior is receiving this year has not come without a price. Older brother Christian anticipated, as many fans and experts did, that Micah Johnson would come in right away and start. When Micah Johnson didn’t grab the position, some of the jubilation surrounding his arrival turned into jeers.

“Sometimes it did upset him,” Christian Johnson said. “When he did something wrong, people would say he wasn’t ready.”

Now Micah Johnson will get the chance to do what he came to UK to do — make plays.

“He could have started more last year,” Christian Johnson said. “But now it’s his time to start and time to shine.”

Micah Johnson said he is not looking to be a leader in a defense already full of them. He’s just glad to finally hit the field.

“Everyone out there can take a leadership role,” Micah Johnson said. “I’m just happy I’m in there with the other guys.”