Kilgore College football coach J.J. Eckert welcomed a 6-foot-6, 202-pound quarterback into his program five years ago, expecting that he'd probably add some weight to his lanky frame.
“When he walked in here on his recruiting trip, I'm looking at him and I see these big shoulders, and I see a guy that's physically gonna develop,” Eckert said. “He would be the first one to breakfast check in the mornings. He'd get in there and eat two, three plates.”
Thus began Lane Johnson's unlikely football journey that included three position changes, an extra 100 pounds of mass and stops in Kilgore, Texas, Norman and now New York, where Thursday he'll join NFL commissioner Roger Goodell on stage as a top-10 draft selection.
Just two springs ago, Johnson struggled through a brief identity crisis when Oklahoma coaches asked him to play offensive tackle. The lifelong skill-position player resisted, unsure if he could accept the “big ugly” label.
“I'd been playing a skill position my whole life, and then to have the idea put in my head of me playing offensive line was kind of a shell-shock deal,” Johnson said. “It took a while for me to accept that and get it through my head.”
Nowadays, Johnson still can't quite believe the past two years' remarkable twists and turns. Neither can Eckert, who had no idea just how special — and big — that skinny quarterback would one day become.
Johnson started only a few games at quarterback his freshman season, completing 32 of 61 passes for 510 yards and three touchdowns. But one of his most memorable moments under center came in the fourth quarter of a midseason contest against traditional junior-college powerhouse Trinity Valley.
With Kilgore leading by three points late in the third quarter, Johnson faked a handoff before executing a perfect naked bootleg, sprinting untouched for a 16-yard touchdown that essentially sealed his team's victory.
Johnson gained around 40-50 pounds from the time he arrived at Kilgore to spring football practices in 2009. One day, as the team worked in a goal-line set, Eckert asked Johnson to fill in for an injured tight end.
“He said, ‘What do I do?'” Eckert recalled. “I said, ‘Just escape C-gap, and if you see somebody, hit 'em.' Well, he hits a linebacker and pancakes him, and the rest is kind of history.”
One Division I coach was there that day watching practice, and offered Johnson a scholarship almost immediately. Over the next few weeks and months, word spread to other programs, eventually landing Johnson offers from Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and TCU, among others.
Johnson picked the Sooners, who were eager to find a solid replacement for departed All-America tight end Jermaine Gresham, and ended his junior-college career after only one season.
“I just thought they were just getting him ready for life after Gresham,” Eckert said. “He's a big-bodied guy, and they've always had a lot of success with tight ends there.”
After redshirting in 2009, Johnson switched from tight end to defensive end midway through the 2010 season, but never seemed right for either spot.
Then during spring football 2011, OU coaches approached the vagabond big man and asked him to try offensive tackle.
“He was starving himself to play at 270 (pounds) to play D-end,” coach Bob Stoops said. “I asked (strength) Coach (Jerry) Schmidt how long it would take him to get to 300 pounds. He said, ‘About a week and a cheeseburger.'
“Sometimes with these big, long guys that are really athletic, you don't know when they're going to stop growing.”
The move made sense for lots of reasons, but for a guy who spent most of his life playing quarterback, the thought of becoming an offensive lineman — and all the stereotypes that come with it — didn't sit well.
Johnson said coaches left the decision up to him, and he continued to play defensive end for another few weeks before ultimately choosing to give the offensive line a try.
“When he moved to tackle initially, I thought, ‘That's an ingenious move,'” Eckert said. “But you're always wondering how the student-athlete's gonna take it.”
One thing Johnson said helped was having a friend like Gabe Ikard, the former Bishop McGuinness standout who was also transitioning from tight end to offensive lineman at around the same time.
“It was difficult going from a skill position to playing on the line,” said Ikard, now Oklahoma's starting center. “We had to change our bodies and we had to change our mental approach to the game. We realized we were not going to catch any passes and get our name in the paper.
“Once we accepted that our job was the most important on the field, we allowed ourselves to work toward becoming good offensive linemen. “
Johnson entered the starting lineup for Oklahoma's second game of 2011 — a top-five clash at Florida State — and started every game the rest of that season at right tackle. He shifted to left tackle before his senior year, and by the end of the season was showing up on first-round draft projections.
Then in late January, Johnson wowed NFL scouts at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala. During the game, former Utah State cornerback Will Davis intercepted a pass and returned it 25 yards before Johnson caught him near the sideline and shoved him out of bounds.
Johnson affirmed his impressive speed with a 4.7 40-yard dash time at the February NFL Combine.
“It's always unique when you start talking about gaining ... you don't really think about maintaining the speed to go along with that,” Eckert said. “For him to be able to do that, I think it just speaks volumes about what kind of athlete he is.”
The latest mock drafts have Johnson going as high as No. 4 overall to the Philadelphia Eagles, and as low as No. 11 to the San Diego Chargers. Johnson was one of few draft prospects invited to the ceremony.
“I've actually never been to New York,” Johnson said. “Having the opportunity to take my family, as well as myself, it's a blessing. ... It's moving so fast now, so it's kinda hard to grasp it all. Sometimes when I have time to think about how my career's gone, it is just remarkable. Over these past months, it's all come into place.”