April 23, 2014
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – Who needs MapQuest when you’ve got Alex Mirabal?
Mirabal, Marshall’s offensive line coach, has spent part of this spring – OK, very little of it – trying to figure out why it seems so many Herdheads are worried about the move of Sebastian Johansson from left guard to left tackle.
You’d have thought Mirabal was calling on Scarlett Johansson to fill the void.
Johansson understands the doubt in some, because the Karlstad, Sweden, native just blossomed into an offensive line starter last season for Coach Doc Holliday’s team after sitting for two years as he continued to learn the game.
Plus, the 6-foot-4, 285-pound redshirt junior is replacing a three-year starter in graduating senior Garrett Scott, an all-Conference USA second team pick last season … and at the ultimate protection spot on quarterback Rakeem Cato’s blind side.
“It’s like this,” Mirabal said. “Swede fits the body type and he’s had a tremendous spring. People say it’s going to be a tough transition, and I say, ‘No, he’s only moved over a yard and a half.’ What’s tougher is the kid came over from Sweden, 4,000 miles away and done what he’s done here.
“That’s a tougher transition to me than what he’s done now. You’re talking about a kid who’s had a major transition in his life, so this is minor. Coming over from Sweden, that’s a special mindset. Some of these kids get homesick when they’re three states away. Sebastian is thousands of miles away and he never complains. His toughness and his work ethic and pride to improve is what makes him special.”
Mirabal has done his homework. It’s 4,173 miles from Karlstad to Huntington. But what’s more important is that Johansson does his homework.
“It’s going pretty well,” said the understated Johansson, who is called “Swede” by his teammates. “I still have some things to work on, but I know what I need to do, so it’s just grinding day-in and day-out.”
So is sliding left 54 inches a big deal?
“Some people say it is,” Johansson said. “I understand why. You’ve got to protect the quarterback’s blind spot and everything, but you’ve just got to go out there and work your behind off. And that’s what it’s all about, no matter where you play. Be on point.”
So, has the very competitive Cato said anything to him about lack of protection in any drills to date?
“Not anything in particular,” the tackle said, “but I think he would tell me if I did a poor job. So far, things are good.”
Johansson, who played a year of American football at Raceland (Ky.) High, in 2009 before returning home to graduate before coming to Marshall, played 853 snaps last season as the Herd went 10-4 and won the Military Bowl. He graded at an 84 percent success rate, topped only by veteran center Chris Jasperse (86 percent) among MU linemen.
“Swede’s toughness, his athleticism, his pride in getting job done, that’s why he’s been successful in the move to tackle and why we feel this is not a stopgap deal, not a spring deal,” Mirabal said. “It’s a permanent move for him.
“I feel personally we’ve got the best two tackles in the conference in Swede and (right tackle) Clint Van Horn. We’ve upgraded, even though Garrett Scott’s a great player and in my mind will be in the NFL Draft (next month). There are things Swede does naturally that Garrett didn’t. Swede’s a nastier, more physical player than Garrett was.”
Swede? Nastier than the 6-5, 295-pound Scott?
“It might be so, might be so,” Johansson said, laughing. “I’d say I probably have more aggression than Garrett has, but we’ll have to wait and see how it goes. I learned a lot from Garrett, playing next to him. He’s a tremendous athlete, had a lot of experience.
“You can just learn so much from just how he holds himself up on the field, his presence. How are we different? We move a little bit differently, and he’s got about an inch of height on me, and that may be about it. I think we have a very similar run game, to be honest.”
Johansson, who emerged at guard last spring a couple of months after Mirabal’s arrival on the staff, started all 14 games for the 2013 Herd. He’s being counted on in a similar fashion this coming season at left tackle, where true freshman AJ Addison is running No. 2.
“The biggest change for me is the use of my inside hand more, especially in pass rush,” Johansson said when asked about adapting to a new role. “Going with both hands double under, and kind of punch across your body. That’s the biggest transition.”
He’s also trying to help his “next-door” replacement, left guard Blake “Cheese” Brooks, just as Scott aided the Swede in the starting role last season.
“Sure, we work together,” Johansson said. “I help Cheese out, especially watching film, and especially when we break down plays. I’ll tell him how I handled that last year and we work things out together.”
And Mirabal figures that Marshall is set up front with a left-to-right group of Johansson, Brooks, Jasperse, right guard Mike Selby and Van Horn.
“Our starting five right now is better than our starting five was at any point last year. Coach Holliday and I have talked about that,” Mirabal said. “Why? Because – and I don’t think, I know, from watching it on film – it’s a nastier group, a more physical group, and that’s attributed to the insertion of Selby and Brooks into lineup.
“So, people will say, why didn’t they play last year? Well, they weren’t ready. They’re ready now. And they just give us a more dominant, physical presence inside where, now, our running game, our inside zone, our power game, can clear out the A gap in the running game for us.
“Sebastian is going to do a great job where he is, too. Why? Because he the toughness and desire to get the job done.”