GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Brendan Kent vividly recalls the first time he met Fred Johnson back when he was the offensive coordinator at Royal Palm Beach High School.
Johnson was in the eighth grade and Kent and head coach Willie Bueno were visiting Royal Palm Beach’s feeder middle school to speak with boys who might want to come out for football the following fall.
The school’s principal brought Johnson over to the coaches at the end, trying to further encourage him.
“The principal brought him (to us) and said, ‘This is the kid you want to play football,'” Kent recalls of the then-towering eighth grader. “He said, ‘No, I don’t want to play football.’ He had no interest. … He was the biggest kid in the school. You had to try to get him out. He just didn’t seem like he was interested.”
The coaches were very interested, though, and continued to reach out to Johnson. It would take until his junior year of high school, on the junior varsity team, to get him to finally stick with the sport. Despite only starting on varsity as a senior he earned a scholarship to Florida and drew 10 starts over his first two seasons.
On Saturday in Arlington, Texas, Johnson — now listed at 6-foot-6, 330 pounds — will be the starting right guard for the No. 17 Gators against No. 11 Michigan.
Kent, now the head coach at Oxbridge Academy in West Palm Beach, Fla., isn’t surprised to see how far Johnson has come since that first meeting.
“Not one bit. You don’t see kids like that walking around all the time,” he said. “His athletic ability at that size is freaky.”
A raw product his first two seasons at Florida while playing in 20 games between tackle and guard, Johnson’s development is one of many reasons the Gators are optimistic about their offensive line — a group coach Jim McElwain has said could be a strength for the team.
Johnson is optimistic, as well. He says the bond he’s built with new offensive line coach Brad Davis has helped elevate his play to another level.
“I wasn’t really focused (in past years). I was still just worried about outside things, things that didn’t pertain to football. This year, Coach Davis really taught me how to focus on what I could do with football and pushing me to be greater,” Johnson said.
Said McElwain: “I think first and foremost, he’s starting to grow up and understand the importance of the daily preparation and seeing really how much he means to the team being successful. … He’s a guy that up front that can at times create an eclipse. He’s a big son of a gun and can block out the sun. We need him to play without that not every-other-play mentality but that ‘Let’s go finish it.'”
Johnson said he’s just getting started.
“I’ve progressed tremendously. … I haven’t even scratched the surface yet,” he said.
Which, again, is not surprising given his football backstory.
Johnson is the nephew of former NBA All-Star Otis Thorpe and wanted to pursue basketball when he was younger, but it never proved to be the right fit. Football, meanwhile, didn’t interest him.
When he was 8 years old, his parents entered him in the local Pop Warner league, but he quit after that year and didn’t play again until high school.
The Royal Palm Beach coaches did get him to come out for the freshman team, but he soon quit the sport again. Kent says Johnson needed to focus on his grades his sophomore year, but they kept talking about his football future.
“All the time,” Kent said. “Every time I saw him in the hallways or in class I saw him and talked to him to just see if his mind changed.”
Johnson came back out his junior year and was “extremely raw,” Kent said. That was to be expected, but the coaches would see signs of potential breakthrough now and then.
“There would be glimpses in practice and you’re just like, wow, as soon as he puts all this together, you look at a kid like that and you know he can play at the highest level in college and he’ll probably be a (NFL) draft pick,” Kent said. “He’ll go to the combine when he s done at Florida and he’ll probably run a ridiculous time.”
Kent says Johnson’s family was behind encouraging him to join the football team. They liked the structure and the potential future the sport could give him. And the coaches’ persistence eventually paid off — for both the high school team and for Johnson.
“They didn’t really convince me. They just really dragged me out there,” Johnson said. “I literally used to go to lunch, eat real quick and then go play games on the computer. The offensive coordinator at the time was in the library, he just literally got tired of seeing me in there. He was like, ‘Come out to football one day.’ The guys on the team at the time didn’t let me leave. It was like a brotherhood.”
Johnson said he started to take football seriously when he saw teammates going off to college and realized he had a chance to play at the next level if he committed himself.
“That was the message every day to him,” Kent said. “He just didn’t know what football could do for him.”
He sees it now. Johnson will be draft eligible after this season, and while he has a ton to prove, by all accounts he’s playing with purpose as both his present and future become brighter.
Gators center T.J. McCoy says the difference he sees in Johnson is how he takes every practice rep seriously now, how his increased knowledge of the game is showing on the field and in the film room when he calls out defenses to his teammates.
Johnson opened last season as the Gators’ starting right tackle before being usurped by breakout freshman Jawaan Taylor. He then split starts with Tyler Jordan at right guard.
He’s now projected to be the starter at that spot this fall, a key to Florida’s hopes for a more physical presence up front that coaches and fans hope will lead to the overall offensive breakthrough so long in the making for the program.
As he heads into a pivotal season for both he and the Gators, Johnson says he has to reflect back sometimes and put in perspective how far he’s come.
“Yeah, I do look back and be like, ‘Man, I didn’t even picture this,'” he said. “All I know is I had great support behind me in high school, my coaches. I thank all of them for what they did. And now Coach Mac’s putting people around us whose focus is to see us succeed. So I’m just blessed with the support I’ve had around me.”
Said Kent: “He definitely loves football now.“