STILLWATER — And so begins the final stage of Tyler Johnson's journey.
A journey from playing six years of professional baseball to becoming a college football scholarship player at Oklahoma State.
A journey from a backup in a crowded group of linebackers to a contributor at defensive end.
Now the 27-year-old Johnson is the most experienced Cowboy at that position, primed and poised to start as a senior and be a key piece of the OSU defense in 2013.
“To see where I've come from, now when I look back on it, it's really kind of crazy,” Johnson said. “Now I'm in a position where I'm playing a leading role. I've got high expectations.”
Johnson is likely to occupy the hybrid “Leo” spot, where he can use his range and speed to occasionally drop into coverage in addition to bullying offensive linemen up front and rushing the quarterback.
The baseball-to-football story is one Cowboy fans know well because of former quarterback Brandon Weeden's wildly successful transition. Johnson said he'd never take back his original decision to play baseball after the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim drafted him in the 12th round out of Haskell High School, noting the experience as a minor league outfielder and first baseman forced him to grow up.
But when it became clear baseball would not work out, Johnson then became determined to walk on to the OSU football team. He prayed about it. He consistently had dreams about it.
And when he felt phone conversations with the Cowboy football office weren't getting him far, he jumped in the car and drove to Stillwater.
“I didn't know where I was going,” Johnson recalled. “I had to ask people on the street to direct me how to get to the football office, because I was so set in stone that this is what I wanted to do.”
Soon after, Johnson was on the field as a backup linebacker, tallying 37 tackles over his first two seasons. Then when the Cowboys needed depth at defensive end following the departure of starters Jamie Blatnick and Richetti Jones after the 2011 season, Johnson made the position switch. And before the season began, he was awarded a scholarship.
Johnson saw the field plenty in 2012 and put together arguably the best performance of his career in the Heart of Dallas Bowl, finishing with six tackles, two sacks and two forced fumbles.
That, Johnson said, has only motivated him more for 2013.
“It definitely gave me that extra boost,” he said. “Just kind of made me feel, ‘OK it can be like this every game next year.' I want to have that mentality where, ‘Hey, I'm going to go out and dominate every time I touch the field.'”
The rest of OSU's group at defensive end features a lot of youth and inexperience. Sophomores Jimmy Bean and Trace Clark are the only ones who have seen meaningful playing time. Redshirt freshmen Victor Irokansi, Emmanuel Ogbah and Eric Davis will challenge for spots in the rotation. Newcomers Sam Wren and Naim Mustafaa are going through their first spring.
Those guys all have a good teammate to rely on in the affable — and more mature — Johnson. He said he rarely gets teased for being the resident senior citizen. He thinks some don't actually realize he's 27. Sometimes he even forgets he's so much older than his fellow Cowboys.
Johnson's age is a byproduct of his long journey. And he hopes the final step also serves as his breakout season.
“When I leave here,” he said, “I want to have that name, ‘Man that Tyler Johnson, that No. 40, that guy is a hard worker. That guy can play the game of football.'
“If I have that, I'm not going to have any regrets.”