MOSCOW, Idaho – Two years ago, Noah Johnson was standing at the entrance to the Kibbie Dome, an anxious freshman from Arkansas, new to the Northwest and wearing an Idaho Vandals game uniform for the first time.
“When I first came out of the tunnel, I was shaking,” Johnson said. “After the first play, though, I felt good, like this is where I belong.”
Idaho held off a stubborn Montana State 20-17 in that 2016 opening game.
As the Vandals face the Bobcats again Saturday, looking to right a season that has dealt them Big Sky Conference losses against UC Davis and Idaho State, Johnson’s belief has been affirmed by an uplifting Famous Idaho Potato Bowl win his freshman year, by Sun Belt Conference honors as a freshman and sophomore and by a preseason All-America selection.
It has been tested by a disappointing 4-8 campaign last year, and injuries that required off-season surgery to both shoulders. It has been quite a journey for the Vandals’ strong-side guard.
Along the way, there have been countless winter workouts on Idaho’s outdoor practice field and tedious spring practices.
As Johnson enters what should be his prime as a junior and three-year starter, football has not receded into simply a job, though. It remains the shining, soul-satisfying endeavor he rushed into the dome to embrace against Montana State.
“I still love it,” Johnson said. “There’s nothing I’d rather do.”
Idaho offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Kris Cinkovich agrees.
“He loves practicing,” Cinkovich said. “He plays with intensity. Everything we do, he does with intensity. Guys who want to know something (about Idaho’s line technique or scheme) go to him.
“He knows everything.”
If it’s possible to be unassuming at 6-foot-4 and 300 pounds, Johnson is. He doesn’t loom over the other linemen and doesn’t block defenders out of their shoes.
But he always seems to get leverage on his blocks. He’s always quick enough to reach a linebacker, and never appears to be off-balance.
In a one-on-one drill in practice this week, defensive end Ben Taliulu tried a 360-degree spin against Johnson. Johnson simply absorbed the move and folded over on Taliulu.
“He’s had to do more with his feet than in the past,” Cinkovich said.
Johnson said his shoulders have recovered, but Cinkovich said Johnson is still regaining upper-body strength. Compensating for that may have made him a better blocker.
“He’s really quick this year,” Cinkovich said.
In Idaho’s move from the Football Bowl Subdivision Sun Belt to the Football Championship Subdivision Big Sky, Johnson said the Vandals are seeing fewer large defensive linemen.
“You still have to work your technique,” he said. “But it does make it easier to get a good push.”
While Idaho’s defense has been overwhelmed against Fresno State, UC Davis and Idaho State, the offensive line has steadily improved. Behind their blocking, the Vandals have rushed for 773 yards (4.2 yards per carry), led by Isaiah Saunders with 481 yards, an average of 5.0 yards per carry. Johnson and freshman strong tackle Logan Floyd, who plays next to him, are developing a rewarding teamwork.
“We’ll put a defensive tackle on the ground, block a linebacker, and Isaiah cuts off our block,” Johnson said. “We need to keep that feeling.
“We can’t just win four plays, then lose one. We need to take that extra step to become an elite line.”
There is still time, Johnson figures, especially if the Vandals can begin to get the season turned around against Montana State.
“Some of the defensive linemen I played against two years ago are still there,” Johnson said, outlining the challenge against the Bobcats. “I know they’re physical and tough.”
Against Idaho State, the Vandals played to a full stadium. They likely will again against Montana State; Idaho is its homecoming opponent. It’s different than many Sun Belt road games Idaho experienced, Johnson said.
“I just really enjoy that environment now,” he said.
Idaho has also been a good fit for Johnson.
“I love the small-town atmosphere,” he said.
“He’s a tremendous student,” Cinkovich said. “I don’t worry about him taking care of his business.”
The Johnson the Bobcats face Saturday is an enhanced version of the freshman who faced them for the first time two years ago.
“He’s a mild-mannered, calm young man,” Cinkovich said. “He’s an accounting major, for God’s sake. But he flips the switch when he’s on the field. You love to have kids like that.”