With Mangold out, Wesley Johnson takes center stage for Jets
FLORHAM PARK, N.J. (AP) Highlight videos of offensive linemen are usually anything but knee-slapping sources of entertainment.
Unless you’re like Wesley Johnson – and your New York Jets teammates get a hold of one.
”I wish it didn’t exist,” said Johnson, shaking his head Friday. ”I think it’s like a Ron Swanson deal (from `Parks and Recreation’). I just don’t like being on video, period.”
But there’s Johnson, back in his college days at Vanderbilt in 2013, delivering a brief but passionate halftime speech , urging his Commodores teammates to step it up while holding a 10-7 lead over UMass. He smacks his helmet against a locker stall, knocking two nameplates off, and tosses his chair while finishing with an emphatic: ”Let’s go!”
Final score: Vandy 24, UMass 7.
”Someone said, `Wesley should say something,’ and I was like, `You’re right, I’m going to say something,”’ Johnson recalled. ”Sure, it was fiery, but I was mumbling through it. We knew we were going to win, but we were playing bad. That’s what I was mad about.”
Jets left tackle Ben Ijalana saw a reporter’s tweet with a link to the video Thursday night and sent it to the rest of the offensive line.
”Our group chat exploded,” guard Dakota Dozier said with a laugh. ”It was great.”
Even quarterback Geno Smith came over to compliment Johnson, who was in the middle of an interview.
”Hey,” Smith said, ”that was a great halftime speech.”
It certainly has made the rounds – even if Johnson would prefer it to fade into the nether regions of the internet.
”It just shows how passionate Wes is,” Dozier said. ”I mean, that’s honestly who he is. He’s a passionate man. I can totally get it where he’s a little embarrassed, but at the end of the day, it makes you want to play with the guy. You’ve got a guy that fired up, it rubs off.”
Johnson is about to get lots more playing time as he replaces the injured Nick Mangold for the final four games of the season, starting with Sunday at San Francisco.
”Wes has done a good job,” coach Todd Bowles said. ”He’s getting better every week. The big thing about him is that he’s smart and he’s a fighter.”
Mangold was placed on season-ending injured reserve on Thursday with a severe ankle injury. Johnson stepped in for Mangold for four games after the seven-time Pro Bowl selection initially sprained the ankle against Baltimore on Oct. 23. Mangold returned last Monday, but re-injured it against Indianapolis.
The 32-year-old Mangold is due nearly $6.075 million in base salary next year and the Jets could save $9.075 million on the salary cap by cutting him. Johnson is scheduled to be a restricted free agent, but could be a younger – he turns 26 next month – and cheaper option for New York. So, these last four games could be, in essence, an audition for Johnson.
”It would be bad to think about that,” Johnson said. ”It’s kind of the mental fortitude thing where you’ve got to focus on the 49ers. If I look past that, I’m doing everyone in the locker room a disservice.”
Johnson has been solid in relief of Mangold this season while continuing to develop as an NFL center.
”I think that we all have great expectations for Wes and his future,” offensive coordinator Chan Gailey said recently. ”I think he’s got the chance to be a very good football player before it’s over with. I mean he’s not Nick Mangold, but there’s not many of them out there that are.”
Johnson was a four-year starter at Vanderbilt, where he established himself as a versatile lineman by playing tackle, center and guard. He was voted an offensive co-captain by his teammates his final two seasons, and capped his college career by being drafted by Pittsburgh in the fifth round in 2014.
Johnson was waived by the Steelers early during his rookie season after not suiting up for the first five games, and the Jets claimed him two days later. He didn’t play in any games for New York that season, but saw action in 10 last year – including filling in for an injured Mangold for one.
He worked all along the line this summer, including at center, proving himself to be a valuable backup.
”Coming out of college, I had played left tackle the last few years, and the talk was, hey, this guy has played most of the positions, so that could be where he fits in,” Johnson said. ”I was just looking to help out as much as I can and once a spot opened up, see if I can take advantage of that opportunity – at whatever the spot it is. And, it’s happened to be at center.”
Other than that infamous Vandy video, there’s not a lot on the internet on the Nashville native, who comes across as low-key and humble. He enjoys military history, the HBO show ”Game of Thrones” and the ”Song of Ice and Fire” novel on which the hit series is based.
”I’m an OK guy,” Johnson said, laughing. ”There’s nothing really weird about me.”
For more NFL coverage: http://www.pro32.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP-NFL