March 12, 2023

“I’ll Wreck The Game”: Micah Johnson Forewarns Riders’ Opponents

Credit University of Kentucky Athletics

A 34-year-old Micah Johnson would have the best chance of neutralizing a 17-year-old Micah Johnson.

As a teenager, he was a road-grader of a running back whose strength and speed were typically too much for would-be tacklers.
The current version is a perennial all-star defensive tackle who has recently signed with the Saskatchewan Roughriders as a free agent for the third time since 2019.  

“I think that playing running back has contributed to the defensive tackle success, because I’m very athletic,” Johnson says from his off-season home in Tallahassee, Fla.   

“I had that ability to make a guy miss. That’s what I took pride in as a running back. It wasn’t just a matter of running you over. I was 260 pounds, but I could make you miss. I could put my feet in the ground and cut. I was that type of running back.”  

One who rushed for 2,543 yards and (get this) 46 touchdowns two seasons at Fort Campbell High School in Kentucky.  

Over that span, he also amassed 293 tackles while playing linebacker. The all-around excellence was such that he earned Kentucky’s Mr. Football Award in 2005.  

“I was always a bigger guy, but I was always pretty much the fastest guy, so I really played running back my whole life,” Johnson says. “I really didn’t start playing defence until my junior or senior year (of high school).  

“I loved playing running back. I grew up worshipping (NFL stars) Mike Alstott and Jerome Bettis and all the 250-, 260-pound bruising backs.  

“I actually got a couple of scholarship offers as a running back. Louisville offered me a scholarship as a running back. So did Nebraska, and a few other schools offered me an opportunity to play tailback at 255, 260 pounds coming out of high school. It was crazy.”  

Johnson ended up attending the University of Kentucky. In addition to making the Southeastern Conference’s all-freshman team as a linebacker, he rushed for a one-yard touchdown to open the scoring in the Kentucky Wildcats’ 28-20 victory over the Clemson Tigers in the 2006 Music City Bowl.  

Thereafter, Johnson concentrated on playing inside linebacker, with impressive results. He was an SEC first-team all-star as a junior.  


Credit University of Kentucky Athletics

At that point, he considered entering the NFL draft pool, but opted to complete his college eligibility.  

“I had a horrible combine — the worst combine ever,” he says. “It was the slowest I’ve ever ran in my life. It was pretty bad.   

“So I went from being a pre-season All-American — in my junior year, I had a second-round grade — to going undrafted. It was tough, man. It was a big fall.”  

Followed by a discouraging spring.  

Johnson was signed by the New York Giants as an undrafted free agent in April of 2010, only to be waived two months later.  

He resurfaced in August with the Miami Dolphins, turned heads during the pre-season, and made the team’s opening-day roster. But, after playing in one game, he was released.  

After subsequent NFL stints with the Kansas City Chiefs, Cincinnati Bengals and Green Bay Packers, Johnson headed northward in 2013.  

“My agent called and said, ‘This CFL team, Calgary, has your rights,’ ” Johnson says. “I’d never heard of it.   

“I said, ‘Am I still going to play linebacker?’ He said, ‘Hell, no. It’s a totally different game up there. You’ll probably play defensive end.’   

“At that time, I’d just got cut from the Packers. It was one of those times when you get cut out of nowhere. It’s just out of your hands. I was like, ‘Forget it, man. I’ll go try Calgary.’   

“So I came to Calgary having never played D-line before. I knew I was going across the border and I was just trying to hang on.   

“At this point, I was just tired of getting cut. I had been cut from four or five NFL teams in three years. You’re tired of hearing coaches say, ‘Hey, man, you did everything you could do,’ or, ‘You did a great job but we’ve got to go somewhere else,’ so I decided to take my shot at the CFL.”  

Johnson was promptly introduced to Stampeders defensive line coach DeVone Claybrooks, who soon had a surprise in store.  

“He was like, ‘Man, I know you want to be a defensive end, but if you move inside to defensive tackle, you’ll make a career up here,’ ” Johnson recalls. “I was pretty mad about it because, in six months, I went from an inside linebacker to a defensive tackle. What the hell’s going on?”  

Claybrooks’ words were prescient.   


Credit University of Kentucky Athletics

After Johnson tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in each of his first two seasons with the Stampeders, he developed into an all-purpose defensive tackle who could reliably repel ball-carriers in addition to pressuring the quarterback.  

The 6-foot-2, 278-pounder has compiled an impressive resume that includes selections to the CFL’s all-star team — as a member of the Stampeders in 2016, 2017 and 2018.   

He is also a six-time divisional all-star, most recently with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in 2022, and someone who helped Calgary win Grey Cup championships in 2014 and 2018.
In the latter season, he produced a career-high 14 sacks — one behind Roughriders defensive end Charleston Hughes, who led the league.  

I feel like if you look at the numbers when I’ve been healthy in my full seasons, there’s no D-tackle who has put up numbers close to me,” Johnson states. “It’s not even close.”  

Johnson closed the 2022 season in robust fashion, registering four sacks over the final three games, playoffs included.  

“Every sack is not created equal,” says Johnson, who had seven regular-season sacks in 2022 before fattening that total by one in the post-season.  

“For example, me getting seven or eight sacks last year at defensive tackle, those all came inside. Other D-tackles, they go and get sacks on the edge, but they’re a defensive tackle on paper. I’m the one getting sacks on the inside. You’ve got other D-tackles who go get five sacks on the edge and then have a D-tackle category where they get nine or 10 sacks. That’s more than half of them coming on the edge!  

“Since I’ve been healthy, I’ve been double-teamed with two sets of hands on me. Nobody in the league deals with that more than I have.  

“Down south in the NFL, you have Pro Football Focus. You have all these different avenues for people to really watch film and get deep into the numbers, so a lot of things people do can’t be hidden. Up here in Canada, they really don’t have that.   

“It’s one of those things that has frustrated me the past couple of years. OK, my sack number has been down, but if you really watch film, there’s really nobody who’s more explosive on the inside.  

“The reason I’m so confident is because you can’t show me a young guy inside who is better than me — not just better, but faster, more explosive, putting guys on their back, winning one-on-ones, with actual pass-rush moves.   

“Those are things that I can hang my hat on at 34 — and I know I’m still the best at it. I know there aren’t any young boys better than me. And the film says that.  

“I’ll go to bat with that any day of the week, because I know the film doesn’t lie.”  

Neither does the birth certificate — Johnson turns 35 on June 22 — but he seems to be immune to the aging process.  

“I was just an all-star last year,” he points out, “and people kind of act like I’m not producing.”  

Johnson encounters that perception even though he has been named an all-star three times since turning 30 — in 2018 (with Calgary), 2021 (Saskatchewan) and 2022 (Hamilton).  

“I’m going out there with the mindset that I’m breaking the mould,” he says. “I’m showing guys that this isn’t the ’80s and this isn’t the ’90s anymore. Guys aren’t drinking sodas and smoking cigarettes at halftime.   

Credit University of Kentucky Athletics

“I’m 34 and I’m still explosive. For me, it’s just the age (that people mention). They can’t say anything else. It’s motivating me and I can’t wait to go out there and show it.  

“The D-ends outside of me, they’re getting one-on-ones and ballin’, because I’m going to eat up the inside. They’re all going to get their one-on-ones and do their thing outside.”  

Johnson’s presence is also liberating for the linebackers. He cites as an example CFL legend Solomon Elimimian, who concluded his illustrious playing career in 2019 while earning all-star honours as Saskatchewan’s middle linebacker.  

“I said, ‘Solly, you don’t have to worry about anything. I’ve got you,’ ” Johnson recalls. “He had a hell of a season. Solly told me every week, ‘I don’t get touched. This is phenomenal.’ This is Solly saying it every game.   

“Last year in Hamilton, Jovan (Santos-Knox) had his best season and he’s telling me he attributes a lot of that to me — not being touched and just being able to go and get it.   

“That’s what the guys around me are saying, but this stuff doesn’t get put out there in the media nearly enough. Down south, there’s so much in-depth coverage of the guys analytically. You still know, year in and year out, that ‘he’s a game-changing player.’  

“Week in and week out, you have to game-plan for me. If you don’t, I’m going to wreck the game. If you leave me one-on-one more than you double-team me, I’ll wreck the game, and that still goes.”  

If he can shatter some presumptions or preconceptions along the way, all the better.  

“I’ve had a lot of this stuff on my mind and I’m not a social-media guy,” Johnson says. “I don’t get out and pound my chest on social media. I don’t even tweet. I don’t go on Instagram. That’s not my style.   

“You hope your film does it, but it’s just to the point where most people keep ignoring it, so I’ve got to start talking a little bit.   

“I just feel like if I’m not one of your top two or three tackles every year, to me it’s a joke, and I don’t think you can put a guy in front of me.”  

Johnson is especially upbeat about what is in front of him in 2023, when the Roughriders’ defensive line is expected to showcase himself, fellow tackle Anthony Lanier II, and ends Pete Robertson and Stefen Banks.  

“It’s going to be fun, man,” Johnson says. “And to get back out there and work with that group in Sask, that’s what I’m really excited about. I’m already working with Pete and Anthony. I know what Pete wants to do. I know what Anthony likes to do.   

“It’s just going to be incredible for us to get back together, work together, and cut it up.”