Three years and change from walking at Kenai Central’s 2016 graduation, Conner Johnson has reinvented himself as one of Adams State University’s most dangerous players on the gridiron.
The 6-foot-7, 280-pound offensive lineman, is entering his senior season at Adams State in Alamosa, Colorado, and was recently named as one of the Grizzlies’ top players to watch in a preseason coaches poll.
Johnson was also named one of four team captains, putting him squarely in the spotlight as a leader on the team, and Johnson didn’t back down from the opportunity to compete for his teammates.
“I was ecstatic,” Johnson said in a recent interview. “It was me and three other guys, and I think it shows how much blood, sweat and tears we’ve put into the program.
“As my parents like to say, it’s a testament to how hard I worked to earn this. I’ve put myself in this position, and I’m just excited for my last year and see what happens after it.”
As a four-year starter, Johnson has certainly earned it. Primarily used as a tight end under head coach John Marquez’s tenure during his senior year at KCHS, Johnson moved to Colorado and went to work as a defensive end.
But his spot on defense was short-lived. At least after his freshman year.
Johnson said his coaches called him and his dorm roommate A.J. Deberard one day before his sophomore campaign to propose a change.
“He said, ‘Listen, you guys are going to switch everything and run with it,’” Johnson recounted. “He said we’ll see how it goes.”
Johnson and Debarard swapped positions on the field, a move that slotted Johnson into the left tackle position.
“I switched lockers, jerseys, everything from that moment on,” he said.
Johnson said he embraced the switch with open arms, particularly since it meant he would play a role in helping the Grizzlies offense move the ball.
It also meant he had to beef up. Johnson said as a senior at Kenai Central, he stood 6-5 and weighed in at 235 pounds. Putting on almost 50 pounds will go a long way in earning a spot on the O-line.
“Coming in from back home, I was just a kid from a small school in Alaska,” he said. “I wasn’t expecting to be in this role, but now that I am, it’s absolutely insane. … I’m just trying to be that O-lineman who doesn’t care about stats. I’m doing my job to the best of my ability.”
In his new role, Johnson played well. He earned all-conference second-team at left tackle and took on the leadership role that he still owns.
In addition to the peaks, he’s also had his valleys. Johnson missed a significant chunk of his junior season with a foot injury. In a game against South Dakota School of Mines, Johnson said a teammate landed on his foot and broke it, putting him on the sidelines for four weeks.
It was tough, Johnson said, having to stand back and watch his team play without him, but it also taught the history and political science major a lesson in preparation, not only for himself but his younger teammates.
“It was definitely hard but it just turned into a different role I had to fill,” he said. “Instead of practicing with the boys, I was preparing them for the next game. I was teaching the freshman to do my spot.”
Johnson said he returned in time to take the field in the season finale against Dixie State, but not in time to help earn a second straight all-conference accolade. But in his modest fashion, Johnson said that’s not what mattered to him.
“I thought, ‘Don’t dwell on that,’” he said. “Let it be something positive.”
Now, with a promising final season with the Grizzlies, Johnson said he is focused on the task at hand, because his future as a football player could very well rely on it. Johnson said he has dreamed of becoming pro, but added he can’t reach that dream if he doesn’t put in the hard work today, as he has all four years.
“You’ve just got to be prepared for it,” he said. “If it doesn’t work out, I am 100% happy with how my college career went. But if I get to that bridge, I’ll cross it (then).”
Johnson is one of many central peninsula players set to play college this year, including six from Soldotna (Brenner Furlong at Dakota State, Blake Riley and Levi Benner at Valley City State, Aseli Finau at Eastern New Mexico, Dylan Simons at Hancock Community College and Cody Nye at the University of Minnesota, Morris), four from Nikiski (Luke Johnson at University of Idaho, Ian Johnson at George Fox University, Tyler Litke at Pacific University, and Lincoln Johnson, who is wrapping up graduate assistant work as the strength and conditioning coach at Greenville University) and one other from Kenai (Avery Hieber, Trinity International University).
Editor’s note: A previous online version of this story did not include that Nikiski grad Luke Johnson is playing for the University of Idaho this year. The Clarion regrets the error.