Editor's Note: This is the third in a series of stories that will profile each of the players in Penn State's Class of 2012. You can read the previous stories here.
Like fellow St. Augustine alum Jack Crawford, Austin Johnson has some hoop game..
For the second time in four years, Penn State will welcome a defensive lineman from St. Augustine Prep in Richland, N.J., to its football team.
But anyone trying to compare Austin Johnson to Jack Crawford probably won't get very far, said the man who coached both players.
"Austin knew the game better," said Dennis Scuderi, who coached Crawford's final two seasons at St. Augustine and all but the last month of Johnson's career. "We got Jack his junior year. He'd never played football before. Austin knew the game, understood it, watched football all the time. It was easier for him to understand and he knew the game, knew what was expected of him."
Crawford was a slot receiver and a defensive end in high school, and did most of his developing during his first couple of seasons at Penn State. He went on to be a three-year starter and became a fifth-round pick of the Oakland Raiders in April's draft.
Johnson, one of 18 freshmen bound for State College next month, was an offensive and defensive tackle for Scuderi. Crawford attacked offenses from the edge; Johnson would blow things up from the inside.
There was one major similarity between the two linemen, though -- their love of basketball.
Crawford had left his native England and gone to the United States to play basketball, not football. Johnson, a longtime New York Knicks fan, also had big hoop aspirations early in his high school career.
"When he came in, he was a big kid, but I think he was really focused on basketball more than he was on football," Scuderi said. "We told him, 'With your size and your speed, you could be a college football player.' I think he saw that and after his sophomore year, he went to some camps, realized that, 'Hey, I can do this type of thing,' and his focus changed. He kind of put basketball behind and football became number one. He started really improving on his technique, working hard, getting bigger and stronger, more time in the weight room, more time studying the game."
Johnson didn't entirely turn his back on basketball, though. He helped lead St. Augustine to a Non-Public Class A state championship during his junior year and carried the team (though not as far) this past season after its top two players had graduated.
"It was a great experience," Johnson said. "I know how to play under pressure now."
Johnson also knows how to move. His time on the basketball court has helped his footwork and quickness on the football field, he said.
"My strengths are my footwork and my quickness off the ball," he said. "I need to work on my hands a little bit to get off of blocks."
Johnson is anticipating he'll have a tougher time doing so at the next level. According to his coach, getting off blocks wasn't a problem for the 6-foot-5, 285-pounder in high school.
"He became so dominant that he was getting double-teamed and people couldn't block him anyway," Scuderi said.
Penn State had an early edge in Johnson's recruitment, and not because of Crawford. The Nittany Lions had been his favorite team to watch from an early age.
"They always stood out to me," said Johnson, who committed to Penn State last June. "They were always the team to have no names on the jerseys, just plain colors … I liked watching everybody in the stadium. It was enormous, JoePa was such a huge figure at that point. And I liked watching hard-nosed football."
Boston College and Georgia Tech were "in his ear" after the Sandusky scandal broke, but Johnson stayed firm. Penn State's retention of defensive line coach Larry Johnson (no relation), who had impressed Austin Johnson from the time he had met him at Penn State's team camp, was a big reason why, he said.
Johnson hopes to get up to about 290 pounds in time for his first season, but he still likes to get out on the basketball court from time to time. His younger sister, Kennedy, already tops six feet. She just wrapped up her sophomore season at Sacred Heart High School. Johnson believes his sister will eventually play Division I basketball.
Will she ever get good enough to beat her big brother in a game of one-on-one?
"That will never happen," Johnson said, laughing.