TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — For nearly three years, Roderick Johnson, Florida State’s junior left tackle, has been able to line up, look to his right and know exactly whose face he’ll see. The same goes for senior left guard Kareem Are when he looks to his left. Although they traveled different roads to get here, Johnson and Are each arrived together as part of FSU’s recruiting class of 2014.
And while Johnson cracked the starting lineup a little more quickly, the two eventually found a home next to each other on the left side of FSU’s offensive line, where they team up to protect quarterback Deondre Francois’ blind side, as well as pave the way for some of Dalvin Cook’s spectacular runs.
“They communicate well together,” FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said. “They do a good job, and I think they feel comfortable beside each other.”
The two come from different parts of the country – Johnson from the St. Louis suburb of Florissant, Mo., and Are from Brooklyn, N.Y. – but took similar routes to becoming football players.
Both grew up playing multiple sports and, no surprise given their physical builds, were initially drawn to basketball.
“I had NBA dreams,” said Are, who would later move to Elmont, N.Y., on Long Island.
“I was just the tallest,” Johnson said with a smile. “Stick me by the goal and I’d dump it in.”
And each moved to the gridiron mainly as a way to spend more time with friends.
Are’s younger brother started playing football in middle school and, after attending a few of his practices, Are thought it might be fun for him, too.
“All my friends were at football practices after school,” he said. “I didn’t have anything to do, so I just joined and I had a lot of fun and I stuck with it.”
Johnson’s story was similar – he started to play football in the sixth grade because he loved to play, with never a thought that he might one day become one of the most highly-coveted high school prospects in the country.
“It was still a game out there, having fun with my buddies,” Johnson said. “Then the offers started to roll in.”
While quarterbacks, running backs and receivers often get the spotlight, there may be no more important a position in football than the left tackle – provide that team’s quarterback is right-handed.
If he is, then it’s the left tackle’s job to protect the quarterback from what he can’t see.
And Johnson, as it turned out, was very, very good at it.
Not only was Johnson a high-school All-American during his senior year at Hazelwood Central, but he would later assume the job as FSU’s starting left tackle midway through his freshman season in 2014.
In the process, the Seminoles moved senior Cameron Erving – himself a collegiate All-American at left tackle and a future first-round draft pick – to center.
Johnson’s debut came on the road, at rival Miami, in a primetime, nationally-televised game.
Welcome to the big show, kid.
But Johnson flourished, FSU quarterback Jameis Winston was sacked just once and the Seminoles went on to win, 30-26.
“It was almost one of those deals where he was really ready and we really needed him to be ready,” Fisher said. “Going on the road and making that debut was critical in a big game like that.”
Since then, Johnson’s game has only drawn more accolades. After freshman All-America honors in 2014, he followed up by winning the ACC’s Jacobs Blocking Trophy – as well as All-America designations from Sports Illustrated, Sporting News and USA Today – and could be in line for more this year.
Are, however, took a slightly longer road to Tallahassee.
He enjoyed football, and was pretty good at it, but it wasn’t he was challenged by his coaches and teammates at Sewanhaka High that Are started taking the game seriously.
One day, Are’s head coach, George Kasimatis, sat him down and said, “You don’t lift. You don’t do anything. You have potential, but if you’re missing practices and you’re doing whatever you want, we’re not going to let you be a part of this team.”
That, along with some aggressive encouragement from a teammate, helped Are to transform his career.
“He got on me,” Are said. “He was picking me up every morning, making sure I was at practice. He was literally in front of my doorstep, dragging me to practice the whole summer. So it was then that I was like ‘I’ve got to do this. Not only for me, but for my teammates. They’re depending on me.’
“So I stepped up.”
And stepped out of New York.
Are first went to Fort Scott (Kan.) Community College, where he developed into the nation’s top-ranked junior-college guard prospect and attracted attention from major college programs across the nation.
After seeing FSU’s success – the Seminoles had just won the 2013 national championship and would eventually send all five linemen from that team to the NFL – Are settled on Florida State for his next step.
He redshirted in 2014, but by the following year had earned a starting job at left guard and was named one of the team’s top offensive newcomers at its end-of-year banquet.
“Kareem has a big heart,” Fisher said. “He gives everything he’s got out there. He does some good things. He’s got a big body, gets on you, can run good for a big guy and cares. And got some power. He’s a good football player.”
More than anything he has done on the football field, though, Are is most pleased with his accomplishments in the classroom. He graduated with his degree in social science last summer, and his mother was in attendance when he walked at commencement ceremonies in August.
“I’m not going to lie – it’s not that I didn’t think I could (graduate), I just didn’t know how realistic it was,” Are said. “But I made it happen and I’m really proud of myself.”
Florida State’s football players often like to refer to themselves as brothers, and that sentiment certainly holds true up front, where linemen endure grueling practices and intense instruction from position coach Rick Trickett on a daily basis.
But the stressors of the job allow them to grow together and, if everything is working properly, function as a high-level group.
And for nearly three years, that’s what Johnson and have been – steady, reliable anchors at two of the key positions on the field.
“The dynamic duo is how I think of it,” Johnson said. “We have pretty good camaraderie and the communication is pretty good, and I’d rather play with no one else.”