LSU's 'Freak' living up to vast potential

BATON ROUGE, La. -- Watching a recording of LSU's 12-10 win over Auburn last week to focus on the play of defensive tackle Anthony Johnson can be impressive and frustrating at the same time.

Pick a random play. There's a pretty good chance you'll see him come off the ball faster than the Auburn offensive line could react. Chances are, he'll get in his gap, control it, then pursue the football. Chances are -- and this is the frustrating part -- you'll then notice the play develop to the outside, as far away as Auburn could get from where Johnson was in the middle of the line.

It was the story of his night.

"I tell you one thing," Johnson said. "It made me and (fellow defensive tackle) Bennie Logan mad because we wanted the tackles for loss. But that shows that teams are scared to run at us up the middle."

It's not hard to see why. Despite Auburn avoiding him, Johnson still had two tackles for loss, including his second sack of the season, among his three tackles in what his first SEC start. In No. 3 LSU's 4-0 start, Johnson has 14 tackles, including 4.5 for loss, second on the team behind defensive end Sam Montgomery's six. The true sophomore is quickly evolving into the dominant player many thought he'd be coming out of high school.

Auburn coach Gene Chizik admitted after the game that his team wanted no part of challenging the middle of LSU's defense.

"It was an extremely difficult defensive line to run the ball inside on," Chizik said. "And we knew that going in."

Together with Logan, projected by many to be a first-round NFL draft pick at the end of the season, Johnson is half of one of college football's elite defensive tackle tandems that's not always just a tandem. Johnson has only started the last two games after senior Josh Downs was slowed by injury. Rounding out a talented four-man defensive tackle rotation is sophomore Ego Ferguson.

All four are strong, long-armed and can beat blockers with quick first steps to gain the leverage to dominate the gaps they are are assigned to defend. What makes Johnson stand out -- and a big part of what made him the top defensive tackle in the country coming out of New Orleans O. Perry Walker High in 2011 -- is his ability to pursue the ball and make plays.

Where many defensive tackles, including an elite talent like Logan, can be effective and impress scouts without racking up huge statistics, one expects to see Johnson around the football most plays. His 14 tackles leads LSU defensive linemen, impressive considering he did not start the first two games and he shares the field with the likes of Logan and elite defensive ends Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo.

He's active in a way that recalls Glenn Dorsey during his LSU days or Drake Nevis during his outstanding senior season in 2010. If Johnson's production continues at its current rate, he'll have similar statistics to Dorsey's 2007 season, when he had seven sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss.

"He has unbelievable effort to the ball," said Montgomery, noted in his own right for his relentless pursuit. "And he's very fast running to it."

Fast, in part thanks to gentle prodding from LSU to lose weight during the offseason.

Blessed with a naturally large frame, Johnson did not appear overweight when he played his freshman season packing 320 pounds on his 6-foot-3 body that is so naturally large, he earned the nickname "The Freak" in high school. Nevertheless, LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis wanted him to be even quicker, so the school's of-season program called for him to drop to closer to 300 pounds. The lighter weight has paid off.

"I think you see I'm faster when I'm running down the field," he said. "I definitely feel the difference."

As for offensive linemen trying to block him, Johnson confidently said they have little chance.

"They can't block me," he said. "I'm too quick for them."

That reputation is starting to spread.

The running part of Auburn's game plan was a mix of counter plays, often with the goal of getting to the edge away from LSU's tackles and rising star Kevin Minter at middle linebacker.

Auburn rarely dared try the middle.

When it did, on a second-and-2 at the LSU 45 on the first play of the fourth quarter, running back Tre Mason took the hand-off on an I-formation power play and found the line of scrimmage moving toward him. He angled outside instead, but Johnson, engaged with center Reese Dismukes, simply took Dismukes with him to Mason, disengaging from the block in time to dump Mason for a 3-yard loss.

After that, Auburn wisely gave up trying the middle, where Johnson and Logan were living up to the hype.