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Bonesville One-on-One

Wednesday, August 19, 2009
By Ron Cherubini
 Editor of Bonesville The Magazine

In Step with Nick Johnson

Middle Linebacker Came to ECU to Play and
has been Making Plays Ever Since

By Ron Cherubini
All rights reserved.

Charlotte, NC
(Photo: ECU SID)

Call him a throwback linebacker or say he has a nose for the football; it won’t matter to East Carolina middle linebacker Nick Johnson. He plays the old-fashioned way with a brutal efficiency and knack for the big play that is oft overlooked, but not unappreciated. His youthful looks belie his veteran savvy. He is the consummate middle linebacker and is poised to lead a talented defense into battle in 2009.

Johnson took the time recently to sit down with Bonesville for a one-on-one Q & A in which he shared his thoughts about the East Carolina team, its vaunted defense, and his expectations for this, his final season, as a Pirate. Matter-of-fact and coolly comfortable in his role, Johnson sees much left to do during his last go round in Purple & Gold.

* * * * * *

ECU Media Relations photo

Bonesville: This is it, your final season as a Pirate. You have experienced a lot of success, three-straight bowl appearances, a better record each season, and a Conference USA Championship. What does this team, what do you have left to prove this season?

Nick Johnson: Last year we started out great, but then fizzled out after three games. I think this year we cannot tolerate a let down at all. I think this year the way we played the first two games last year needs to be the way we play each game this year. If we do that than I think we can have one of the best seasons ever had here at East Carolina. We are expecting big things this year but will be taking it one game at a time.

B: Take a look around at the guys who line up beside you at linebacker and talk about what they bring to the table. Further, talk a little about what you believe to be the defensive strengths and weaknesses going into the season?

NJ: I don’t think that there are any weaknesses really. We have so much depth and senior leadership at all the positions. Not just the starters, but if you look at the depth behind the starters. There are a lot of guys here who are in their second or third year in the program. They are experienced players who know the system… they know what is going on out here. I think our biggest attribute on this defense is how physical we are. We go out and hit guys as hard as we can on every play. I think for this year, we should have a really good year on defense.

B: You talked about that physical attribute for this defense. What do you attribute that collective persona to?

NJ: A lot of it starts with our defensive coordinator Greg Hudson. He is a real kind of rah-rah guy who gets into it just like we do. We carry that from him. He gets excited when we make plays and celebrates it with us and I think that adds to our excitement on the defense. It gets us that much more excited. He is a guy who gets after it and expects us to as well.

B: Let’s go back to the start of last year with Quentin Cotton and Pierre Bell in the lineup. It was expected that you were going to play a lot, but not necessarily be the starter and then everything changed all of a sudden there in the third week of the season and you came in and did the job. You hear a lot of talk about the linebacking corps and the losses of those two outstanding linebackers… tell me why Pirate fans should not lose any sleep with this year’s unit?

NJ: I think everyone has been in this system so long, it really is like clockwork for us. This season, we are starting three seniors at linebacker. Pierre was a great leader who worked his butt off, but this season the leadership and talent is spread out across three of us in me and Jeremy Chambliss and Chris Mattocks. So, it makes it a lot easier for us. Plus all of the guys in the two-deep and into the three-deep have a lot of experience too. So, I think really this year we are just deeper with experienced talent than last year, no question.

B: You mentioned Jeremy Chambliss and Chris Mattocks… can you give a comment about each of them and what they bring to the field and then talk about a young backer who we should keep an eye out for a potential breakout season this year?

NJ: Well, Chambliss is a guy who played linebacker his whole career here and has such great instincts. He is a physical player. I mean, he is my brother out there and I love playing next to him. Chris Mattocks was a safety that moved to linebacker and has put on probably 10 to 15 pounds of solid muscle. He is a fast guy and a great coverage guy out there which helps a lot (schematically) so I think I am playing next to two guys who are very talented and who, honestly, I wouldn’t want to line up with anybody else. As far as the younger guys, man… you really could pick just about any one of them as a potential to break out this season. I think Cliff Perryman might be the one that has the big year. We both had to have off-season surgery so we worked out a lot together and he is a committed guy who will be playing more of a defensive end/linebacker role this year and I think he could have that breakout year for us.

B: OK. So when you are lined up and against Appalachian State in the opener, what are you going to be looking for as validation that this defense is as good as advertised?

NJ: When the game's over, really, and I look and see how many points they scored. I mean they have that explosive offense with all those fast skill guys. I mean they are team that can put up points in a hurry. I think if that is a team that we can hold under 14 points, then we have a pretty good defense.

B: You are a senior now and assuredly Coach Hud and Coach (Rock) Roggeman are counting on you to be one of those much-discussed senior leaders. Describe your leadership style and how you embrace the role?

NJ: Honestly, I have never been a real vocal guy. I kind of like to almost just keep quiet and do what I am supposed to do, but I think this year I need to be a little more vocal. I am senior and this is my last year and it means everything to me so I have no choice but to lead by example and by word of mouth. But again, there are so many seniors on this team so I think that leadership will not be a problem with this team at all.

B: So, do you have a nickname on this team?

NJ: Hmmmm… (laughs)… OK. My freshman year I got called the White Buffalo and I still don’t know where it came from, what it means or what that was all about. Some of the older guys still call me that.

B: When you look across the line of scrimmage at ECU’s offense, do you have confidence that this year, they can be the type of offense that is explosive and that gives this defense points to work with?

NJ: We don’t have a single position on this team that I don’t feel confident about. I think from the offensive line, most of them came in with my class and have been starting for three years and that is where the offense starts. You know, Sean Allen is the best offensive lineman I have ever seen, so with people like him and of course Pat (Pinkney) at quarterback, that is great leadership on offense. If you can’t trust the football with Pat Pinkney, I don’t know who you can trust. Once Sean gives the ball to Pat, there is a lot of talent over there to put points on the board.

B: This is a very talented ECU team without doubt, but from your perspective, which player stands out… which one commands your respect the most?

NJ: I can name a couple of guys like that starting with Dwayne Harris. When he has the ball in his hands and is running with it, and his balance…wow. I haven’t seen too many players like him. He can take your best hit and just spin right off of it and keep going. And Jon Williams, I have to say him because he is just a freak out there. He is a true football player. I love watching him run the football and he makes things happen out there. Those two guys are special.

B: What are your personal goals this season?

NJ: I mean personally I want to win every game. But, I am mostly focused on our defense as a whole. Last year were rated at the top in what, like, eight categories? I know it is hard to get 12 out of 12 but I think we should aim to be the best defense in the conference… that is my goal.

B: Looking at the season as a whole, what will be considered a success?

NJ: We need to win the conference championship. I don’t like the term defending champions because then you are out to not lose something. I want us to get after it and win the conference championship again. We take it one game at a time. Last year we started looking ahead. I think if we do that, there are not many games we should lose.

B: Going back to when you came into the program, you told Bonesville The Magazine that one of the deciding factors was opportunity to play early. That panned out well for you but did you ever dream it could have gone as it has to this point for you?

NJ: I don’t think I could ever have predicted how things have gone so far. I will say that I wouldn’t trade anything in the world for where I am right now here at East Carolina. I mean, I love Greenville and ECU and the fans, my teammates, everything about this place. I cannot even imagine anything else. I am happy to be part of this.

B: What kind of experience was the first few weeks of last season for you as an individual?

NJ: That was something I have never been part of in terms of the constant media exposure. I don’t know that we handled it as well as we could have. But we had nothing to compare it to and maybe our heads did get a little too big there, which cost us. It is something we all use this year to remember to focus on that one game at a time approach. Ultimately, we learned that beating Virginia Tech and beating UAB and beating Memphis all amount to the same thing… a win.

B: Talk about the environment on game day in Dowdy-Ficklen… how does it compare to some of the places you have a played on the road?

NJ: Well, I mean, when you are riding to the stadium from the Hilton and you take that little back road and you start seeing cars parked and there are people everywhere in purple and gold, there isn’t much else like it. And then you walk into the stadium and you see it painted purple and every seat is filled up, there isn’t much that is comparable to that. Now, when you go to a West Virginia or a Virginia Tech that is pretty exciting too. I will be honest, I get just as pumped up going into a stadium where everyone is cheering against you as much as I do being at home.

B: So how do you relax, get away from football when you need to?

NJ: Maybe take a swim in the pool or play golf. No… really… I love football so I don’t really need any downtime. I don’t like taking time away from it.

B: How has your relationship changed over the years with Coach (Skip) Holtz?

NJ: We you first come in as a freshman, the thing is to learn your role and you keep you mouth shut and do what you are supposed to do. But as you get older, things become more on a personal level and you can joke around some and let your personality out. Coach Holtz keeps us all happy. He is almost like a dad to me.

B: This is the last go-round for you. What do you want your legacy to be at East Carolina?

NJ: Ahhh… hmmmm. Someone who played his heart out every play. That’s it really… I want to be remembered as a guy who gave it all for this team.

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08/30/2009 02:28:36 AM


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