April 16, 2013
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON – Some people would say the biggest thing to land on American shores from Sweden is Volvo or IKEA.
Marshall Football might want to debate that now.
Suddenly, redshirt sophomore Sebastian Johansson has emerged to run with the first team at right guard for the Thundering Herd in spring practice. New offensive line coach Alex Mirabal said Johansson – conveniently nicknamed “Swede” -- is no fluke, although the Karlstad, Sweden, native hasn’t played in his two seasons with MU.
The 6-foot-5, 282-pound Johansson smiles easily, but appears about as easy to move as one of those 3,000-pound Volvo sedans or solid wood IKEA 6-drawer dressers when it’s stuffed.
And, by the way, the Swedish words for “pancake block” are “pannkaka blockera.”
“I haven’t been this happy in a long time,” said the red-bearded Johansson after Saturday’s MU workout. “I’m just ecstatic about getting the chance. I’m working hard, need to keep doing what I’m doing.
“I had a lot to learn. I needed a teaching year, so I didn’t play. It didn’t upset me. It was 100 percent my fault. I just needed to learn how to play. I'm understanding the offense now, seeing the whole picture.
“It just took me some time. I’m happy I stuck with it. I’ve seen some guys drop off the roster in that time, but I’m still here. You can’t give up.”
Johansson will celebrate his 22nd birthday on Monday. He said that before Marshall, he had only one year of offensive line coaching, and that was when he came to the U.S. to play his junior high school season at nearby Raceland (Ky.). The big guy helped the Rams to a 12-1 record and Class 1A quarterfinals in 2009, and former MU assistant coach and area recruiter Phil Ratliff watched with interest.
Johansson returned to Sweden for the 2010-11 school year to compete high school studies in his homeland and get his degree, then came to Coach Doc Holliday’s program.
He was a foreigner in more ways than one.
“I played for the Carlstad Crusaders (in Karlstad),” he said. “I played with that club since I was 11 or 12, and then I went back for that one year after Raceland. Back home, we were all just players and we just tried to help each other out. But there was no real, formal coaching.
“Coming here got me more fundamentally skilled, the year at Raceland. It turns out it was life changing for me. I hoped to play (college football), but I didn’t know how things worked. Once I got to Raceland, things worked out fine. I got a lot of help from friends there.”
Johansson became additionally intrigued by American football when he was invited to play for Sweden in the IFAF World Championships in Canton, Ohio, in the summer of ’09 – an event in which former Herd star wideout Aaron Dobson played for the United States.
Johansson then came to the U.S. as an exchange student, and conveniently landed in the Herd’s backyard. He watched and learned for two years and upon Mirabal’s arrival on the MU staff in early February, immediately impressed the new Holliday aide.
“Swede has made tremendous progress for us,” Mirabal said. “He hasn’t played, and when we started working with him in offseason, mat drills, those things, I saw a kid that was athletic, tough and strong.
“He just hadn’t played much football, didn’t have the experience. He didn’t have, like I say, ‘old eyes.’ Everything is new to him, and so far he’s made unbelievable progress and I trust him 110 percent.
“He’s earned the starting right guard job, and he’s not only earned it, he’s kind of entrenched himself a little there during spring ball. He’s taken advantage of an opportunity and seized it. The most impressive thing about him to me is he’s seeing things -- things he’s seen for the first time -- and he’s reacting to them in the proper manner.
“People forget he’s really played only about a year of football before he came here, so he’s young to the game, which is good, because he doesn’t have bad habits you’ve got to work out of him. He has a tremendous amount of pride and desire to do well. The game of football rewards kids like him.”
Johansson agreed that it’s been a giant plus having veterans on either side of him, with redshirt junior starter Chris Jasperse at center and senior Gage Niemeyer at left tackle, where redshirt senior Jordan Jeffries, who is rehabbing this spring after surgery, is a returning starter, too.
“It helps a lot with those experienced guys next to you. It makes you secure with the calls, and I trust these guys a tremendous amount. I’m the new guy and I don’t want to let them down,” Johansson said.
“Today, we were in a run play and I could hear Gage say, ‘Watch the 5 dig, watch the 5,’ the D-lineman in 5 technique,” Mirabal said. “Those veteran guys are kind of like a cheat sheet, a Cliff’s Notes for Swede.
“He maybe is supposed to be only on Chapter 2, but he’s on Chapter 14 just like that because they have that experience in there.”
Johansson said he learned he’d be working with the first unit about two days before spring drills started, when Mirabal told him, “You’d better get ready; you’re running with the ones … To be honest, hopefully I impressed Coach Mirabal and Coach Holliday with my work ethic, just going hard.”
One thing Johansson didn’t struggle with too much is the language. He speaks solid English, for good reason, but he smiles as he discusses the subject.
“My (maternal) grandmother, she’s from England, so I’ve heard it all my life from my mother’s side,” Johansson said. “My father’s side, they barely speak English. My dad, he understands English and he speaks some of it.
“My mom is very fluent, so I’ve heard it growing up my whole life – but then it’s really different with the Queen’s English over in England and the American version, so it took a while to adapt.
“It took some time, but hey, I’m, still working on it. In Raceland, they didn’t know what I was saying sometimes, but I just had to work hard on that, too.”
His football is catching up with his English, obviously. Asked what’s the biggest thing he’s learned since he joined the Marshall program, Johansson’s words displayed how far he’s come in two years.
“It was technique, the simple knowledge of how to play ball at this level,” he said. “There was a lot I needed to learn … really, just everything.
“Finally, the pieces of the puzzle are falling into place for me.”