Rookie guard Fred Johnson plays more than 3 quarters of Steelers’ preseason opener
Fred Johnson wasn’t told prior to his NFL game debut that he’d play in almost all of it.
“They just kept telling me I wasn’t coming out,” Johnson, a rookie offensive lineman, said of his Pittsburgh Steelers coaches. “So I didn’t (argue). The more reps, the merrier.”
So, there Johnson stood, at right guard, play after play, drive after drive, quarter after quarter, after starting Friday night’s game at right guard.
It’s not often an undrafted rookie starts the first preseason game (Johnson was the only Steelers player to do so Friday), and it’s not often ANY player starts and is still playing come the fourth quarter.
But that’s what Johnson and the man who lined up to his right, right tackle Zach Banner, did during a 30-28 win against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
“It was nice to have another 6-7 person right next to me,” Johnson said with a laugh.
Banner is actually listed at 6-8 — which is tall, but not as relatively tall as a tackle as Johnson is at 6-7 for a guard. Johnson said it took him a possession or two to get accustomed to the NFL speed before he settled in.
“Every decisive little thing you do is at this level is important,” said Johnson, one of three Steelers rookies to start the preseason opener. “You can’t get away with certain things here like I did on the college level.”
Johnson played at a high level in college, too: for Florida in the SEC, where he started 2 ½ seasons. He went undrafted, though, even after being projected by many as a third-day pick. That irked him at the time, but it allowed him to pick his pro team, and he landed with one that has a history of developing talent on the offensive line (three current starters were undrafted).
“Looking back on it now I made the best decision (signing with the Steelers) I could have possibly made,” Johnson said. “Being undrafted, it turns out, was the best thing that could have possibly happened to me.
“I felt like it put a fire under me that I needed. It humbled me a lot.”
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Johnson has been one of the Steelers’ most consistent and best young offensive linemen at Saint Vincent during training camp. He’s regularly run with the second-team offense, filling in admirably — like in the game Friday — when injury or absence bumped him up to play with the 1s.
“He’s a very athletic guy and with size, who moves well and has got big long arms, locks guys out,” offensive line coach Shaun Sarrett said. “But he’s still a baby. He’s got a long way to go. He’s a guy we need to continue to develop, a young guy we are hoping to spend a little extra time with if needed. He’s done great in the classroom, he’s bought in; I think he’s just going to continue to develop. He’s one of the young guys we’re excited about.”
Nothing Johnson did Friday should diminish that excitement from Steelers coaches. Even in the extended look, Johnson’s conditioning held up.
Among the rookie offensive linemen, Johnson to this point has clearly been the class of a group that also includes seventh-round pick Derwin Gray and fellow undrafted players Damian Prince and Garrett Brumfield. Those three didn’t get into the game until its final minutes.
There’s still three weeks for the dust to settle, but Johnson at this point is well entrenched in the discussion for a spot on the practice squad and even perhaps could sneak is way into 53-man roster consideration.
“I felt like (Friday’s game) was a good outing for me,” Johnson said. “I still have a lot of things to work on, like always, but I did good and showed I can be a fit in in the NFL. So it was good.”
Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chris by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .