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MCGILL: Artis Johnson Pursues Quarterbacks, Knowledge

Sept. 15, 2017

By Chuck McGill

HUNTINGTON, W.Va.Artis Johnson is a man of many words, but that doesn’t mean he says a lot.

The 6-foot-1, 220-pound linebacker from Lott, Texas, is Marshall’s special teams captain for this Saturday’s home football game against Kent State (6:30 p.m., kickoff). He has ascended to the role after two games at Marshall because his coaches and teammates use words like “consistent” and “high character” to describe him.

He is also, as linebackers and special teams coordinator Adam Fuller said, “an eager learner.”

Johnson has been one of the many bright spots on the Marshall defense through two games, logging 13 tackles (fifth on the team), three tackles for a loss (tied for first) and one sack. The redshirt junior has started the first two games of the 2017 season after transferring from Reedley (California) Community College.

Peel back a layer, however, and one will find more than a football player. The “eager learner” label isn’t only reserved for Johnson’s ability to absorb the contents of a playbook.



Johnson has a “Word of the Day,” a practice he attributes to a mentor he had at Reedley. If he is involved in conversation or reading a textbook and comes across a word he does not know, he gets out a spiral notebook and a dictionary, jots the word down and writes out the definition.

“It was maybe his first week here and he used a word and I said, ‘Artis, that doesn’t seem like a natural word to use in a sentence,’” Fuller said. “He said, ‘That’s my word of the day, coach.’”

Johnson is not bashful about one of his daily habits. He yearns to be better, whether on or off the field.

“I’ve been doing it for almost two years,” Johnson said. “I try to improve my vocabulary by learning new words. When I read books, if there are words in the book I don’t know, I write them down and look them up. If I don’t know the words, I try to incorporate them into my daily vocabulary.”

Johnson is from a small town in Texas, and his high school was a combination of two towns about 10 miles apart. An online search listed the enrollment at Rosebud-Lott High School at 207.

“It was small 2A in Texas,” Johnson said. “It was small-time ball, but we were competitive. My senior year I played quarterback and we went two rounds deep into the playoffs.”

Johnson was a QB and a safety, but his options at the next level were limited because of the lack of exposure in Lott, which is south of Waco. He decided to attend Reedley and sat out the 2014 season. When he finally saw the field at Reedley, he had made the switch to defense. He recorded 109 tackles and 17 tackles for a loss in two seasons, while also moonlighting as a “wildcat” quarterback and kick returner.

“They recruited me to be a quarterback,” Johnson said. “I decided to play on the defensive side of the ball because I felt like that would be the best fit for me at the Division I level.”

So far, that looks like the smart call. Johnson is a perfect fit at linebacker for the Thundering Herd, and he recorded his first sack in last Saturday’s game at North Carolina State. For Johnson, it was validation for all of the hard work and commitment.

“That was a pretty good moment for me,” he said. “I cherish every moment of it.”

Marshall will cherish Johnson while it has him, too. MU coach Doc Holliday announced Johnson as one of the team’s three captains when Marshall (1-1, 0-0 C-USA) plays Kent State (1-1, 0-0 MAC). Johnson is the second junior college transfer who is in their first year with the program who has been anointed a team captain this season.

“It’s a credit to the last nine months for him,” Fuller said. “It’s a culminating thing, but we have a lot of leaders in the program. He’s one of them right now. He’s consistent with how he goes about his daily work. That’s what has really helped him.

“He’s skilled. You add character to his skill set, those guys improve quickly. That’s what we’re seeing with him.”