By Tim Linafelt
Seminoles.com Senior Writer
@Tim_Linafelt on Twitter
LOS ANGELES – In front of a packed house at Miami’s Sun Life Stadium, freshman Roderick Johnson made his way into the Florida State huddle and had a look around.
Quite the time for a rookie to be making his first start.
“I’m here,” Johnson thought at the time.
“There’s no turning back, so I might as well keep going forward.”
Although he projects a cool, calm demeanor, Johnson, a native of Florissant, Mo., couldn’t help but feel some nerves before kickoff.
“It was so crazy and loud,” he remembers.
But, with a little help from his friends, Johnson performed like a veteran.
He leaned on his neighbor, guard Josue Matias, for play calls. And he received steady encouragement from coaches and teammates throughout the game.
“I told him, ‘I got your back, man.’” quarterback Jameis Winston said. “We’re not going to let our brother step on that battlefield with any doubt in his mind.”
There isn’t any doubt that Johnson’s emergence has played a big role in FSU’s undefeated season.
As the result of a startling, late-season lineup switch that moved Johnson to left tackle and senior Cameron Erving to center, FSU’s front five are riding a wave of momentum as they approach Thursday’s Rose Bowl semifinal against Oregon.
“It’s been a great move for us,” said FSU co-offensive coordinator Lawrence Dawsey. “What made it easy to do is Rod Johnson. He made it easy because of how he had been practicing and the way his development had been coming.”
FSU’s coaches toyed with the change for a few weeks, but waited until they were absolutely sure Johnson could handle it.
A brief appearance during the Seminoles’ win over Virginia showed head coach Jimbo Fisher everything he needed to see.
While starter Ryan Hoefeld dealt with a minor injury, Johnson handled three plays, held his own and then returned to the sideline with an ear-to-ear grin.
“He came out with a big smile on his face, happy,” Fisher said. “And you knew this isn’t too big for him.”
Two days later, Fisher gave Johnson the news: he’d be starting at Miami.
Word quickly spread across Johnson’s hometown, a small suburb of St. Louis.
“I told my dad at the beginning of the week,” Johnson said. “And he told my entire family and I told my entire (group of) friends, and so I had a pretty big support base back in Missouri.”
Johnson’s family and friends tuned into see him not just play, but thrive. The Seminoles ran for six yards per carry, and quarterback Jameis Winston was sacked just once in a 30-26 victory over the Hurricanes.
“Everybody showed me love (after the game),” Johnson said. “So I felt like I was home. And this team, they took me in and they supported me even though they knew I was nervous in my first college game.”
Since then, it’s been full speed ahead for Johnson and his cohorts on the line.
FSU is rushing for 4.8 yards per carry since Johnson entered the lineup, a dramatic increase from its 4.0 average before.
And Winston is staying upright more often, too, having been sacked just twice in the four games that Johnson has started.
Winston sang Johnson’s praises earlier this week, promising that Johnson is “definitely a top-five pick” in a future NFL draft.
He’s still got a few years before he has to think about that, but offensive line coach Rick Trickett believes Johnson is well on his way.
He praised Johnson’s physical skills – he stands 6-foot-7, 330 pounds – but said that it’s his mental acumen that takes him to another level.
“He’s a big, talented guy that’s very intelligent,” Trickett said. “I think his intelligence is what really has helped him come along the furthest.
“He understands football. Things make sense to him.”