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CU Buffs’ Austin Johnson healthy, eager to make impact

After dealing with setbacks, offensive lineman competing at center spot

BOULDER, CO, April 2, 2022: Offensive lineman, Austin Johnson, right, during the April 2, 2022 University of Colorado Boulder football practice. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff photographer)
BOULDER, CO, April 2, 2022: Offensive lineman, Austin Johnson, right, during the April 2, 2022 University of Colorado Boulder football practice. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff photographer)

Like many of his Colorado teammates, Austin Johnson’s journey through college has included numerous coaching changes.

The head coach and position coach he committed to out of high school had already been fired by the time Johnson got to CU in January of 2019. In the three years, he’s been in Boulder, he’s had two head coaches and is now on his third position coach.

That wouldn’t be so bad if that was the most challenging part of Johnson’s journey.

A 6-foot-4, 300-pound offensive lineman from Highlands Ranch High School, Johnson has also dealt with a ruptured Achilles’ tendon and other injuries that have prevented him from reaching his potential.

Now a fourth-year sophomore, Johnson, nicknamed “Big Salsa,” is feeling good and competing at center as the Buffaloes go through spring drills.

“I would say this is the first time in my career at CU that I feel comfortable and ready to go,” Johnson said. “It changes my mindset, kind of just reaching for the goal. The goal is one step closer and me being an older guy now, I kinda have to be the leader. We have Casey (Roddick) and Frank (Fillip), but other than that I’m next up. So I’ve got to set an example. I’ve got to help the younger guys under me go through college because it’s not easy.”

Johnson had high hopes for himself as a true freshman in 2019. He made his collegiate debut that season, playing three snaps against Oregon. He was also named the team’s offensive scout team player of the year.

Before the 2020 season, however, Johnson ruptured his right Achilles’ tendon and missed that season. Then, doctors discovered he had “Haglund’s deformity,” which is extra bone on the back of the heels. That caused the right Achilles’ rupture, so doctors cut out the extra bone on the left heel to minimize the risk of another rupture.

Johnson was unable to go through spring practices last year and didn’t start running until July. In August camp, he strained his calf – a minor injury, but yet another setback. He wound up playing in nine games last year, mostly on special teams. He played 23 snaps on offense.

This spring, Johnson is in a battle with fellow sophomore Noah Fenske for the starting job at center.

“Noah’s a great player and he’s only gonna make me better,” Johnson said. “At the end of the day we’ll see what happens, but yeah it’s a good time.”

Johnson came to CU as a guard, but started snapping as a true freshman. He is finally confident in that position.

“The past few years, center wasn’t really my comfort and I preferred guard,” he said. “But now I’m kind of getting down center and I’m enjoying it a lot more.”

Of the 11 scholarship linemen on the roster this spring, six have taken more offensive snaps than Johnson, but his age and maturity have helped the Buffs.

“He’s been here a couple of years and he’s performing and playing as if he’s an older player, to be honest with you,” CU head coach Karl Dorrell said. “These last few days, I’ve been very pleased with what he’s done. Even his communication … making sure he’s making the directional calls that the line needs to make, I feel like that’s definitely improved, too. He’s done a really good job of just getting past (the injuries) and now he’s playing football.”

That’s what Johnson has wanted since he got to Boulder three years ago. Although the season is still five months away, Johnson is on a better track than ever before to make an impact.

“I’m feeling excited; I’m ready,” he said. “I’m very determined. No one likes sitting on the bench watching on Saturdays. I’m just doing everything I can to be out there on Saturdays and fight with my brothers.”