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EWU’s Johnson twins are locked and loaded

Thu., Sept. 1, 2011

Zach Johnson, left, and his brother Matt are stalwarts on the rugged Eastern Washington defense. (Christopher Anderson)
Zach Johnson, left, and his brother Matt are stalwarts on the rugged Eastern Washington defense. (Christopher Anderson)

A former teammate of Matt and Zach Johnson once claimed he had never played with two defenders who can “run downhill and close on ball carriers” as quickly as Eastern Washington University’s ultra-talented senior twins from Tumwater, Wash.

That former teammate is 2010 Buck Buchanan Award winner and EWU career tackles leader J.C. Sherritt, who capped his remarkable college football career last January by making a game-high 18 stops in the Eagles’ 20-19 win over Delaware in the NCAA Division I championship game.

So it makes sense that Beau Baldwin, considering what Sherritt knows about hunting down ball carriers, finds nothing to fault in such a glowing assessment.

“J.C. was right,” the Eagles’ fourth-year head coach said, when asked about the Johnsons, who combined for 239 tackles, seven interceptions and three fumble recoveries as juniors last fall. “With those two, you see an obvious combination of other skills, as well, but their speed and suddenness is what allows them to bring that something extra – that explosiveness – and run through tackles like very few players can.”

Zach Johnson, a 6-foot-1, 225-pounder, finished second behind Sherritt with 134 tackles last fall after missing the entire 2009 season because of blood clots in his leg. Baldwin expects that total to rise considerably this year as Johnson makes the move from weak-side to middle linebacker.

“In fairness to Zach, his numbers could have been a lot higher if he hadn’t been playing the Willie position, because teams tend to run away from you to the strong side,” Baldwin explained. “But because of his speed, Zach was able to take away a large portion of the field from opposing teams.

“It was hard for them to get out in the open field on our weak side, because he has the ability to shut down plays that a lot of Willie linebackers don’t have the speed and ability to do.”

Matt Johnson can’t wait to see his brother perform in the middle of Eastern’s defense.

“I think Zach’s fast enough to play safety on any team in the Big Sky Conference, that’s just how great an asset speed is for him,” said the 6-1, 220-pound strong safety, who had a hand in 105 tackles, while also picking off a team-high five passes and breaking up eight others. “And now that he’s playing middle linebacker, he’ll be able to use that speed even more.

“People will get a better idea of just how quick he really is when they see him running sideline to sideline making tackles.”

Matt’s speed has been more evident than Zach’s simply because of the position he plays.

“He’s a super-smart player at safety, and a lot of times he knows what’s going to happen before the ball is snapped,” Zach said of his brother, who was a first-team all-Big Sky selection last fall. “But a lot of his interceptions are the result of his speed. A lot of times, where a normal player might have to just knock the pass down, Matt gets there in time to get in position and pick it off.

“He’s been incredible at doing that.”

Matt, while not claiming to be as “freakishly fast” as most lock-down cornerbacks tend to be, still attributes much of his success as a four-year starter to his speed.

“At the safety position, it’s more about smarts and reading plays,” he said. “But, obviously, if you make a bad read or a misstep, it’s nice to be able to catch back up.

“Speed can erase a lot of mistakes.”

When asked which of the Johnson twins is fastest, Baldwin digs up a tactful answer.

“Like everything else with those two, from their grade-point average to the their 40 times to some of the numbers they put up in the weight room, it’s close,” he said. “But I know the speed and suddenness they both have has been a key element in the success they’ve both had.”

Sept. 3at Washington, 4 p.m.
Sept. 10at South Dakota, 2 p.m.
Sept. 17at Montana, noon
Sept. 24Montana State, 4 p.m.
Oct. 1Weber State, 12:35 p.m.
Oct. 8at Northern Arizona, 3 p.m.
Oct. 15Northern Colorado, 4 p.m.
Oct. 22at Sacramento State, 6 p.m.
Oct. 29Portland State, 1 p.m.
Nov. 12at Cal Poly, 6 p.m.
Nov. 19at Idaho State, 3 p.m.

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