NDSU guard Zack Johnson returns to team after injury
FARGO -- North Dakota State offensive guard Zack Johnson sat out last season to rehabilitate a surgically repaired knee, the result of an offseason injury. But watching his teammates from the sideline proved to be difficult for other areas of his...
FARGO - North Dakota State offensive guard Zack Johnson sat out last season to rehabilitate a surgically repaired knee, the result of an offseason injury. But watching his teammates from the sideline proved to be difficult for other areas of his body.
Most notably: breathing. NDSU had a couple of last-minute, potentially heartbreaking moments in the NCAA Division I FCS playoffs.
“I had a couple of heart attacks on the sideline,” he joked. “It was a little tougher than I thought it would be, but it was good to be there to support my teammates and help coach.”
On Monday, the 6-foot-4, 329-pound former second-team all-Missouri Valley Football Conference pick in 2013 was back in spring practice, although it wasn’t like riding a bike.
“A little rusty,” he said. “It’s been a while since I’ve been on the field but spring ball is going to help just to get back into it. Hopefully I’ll be 100 percent.”
He’s not there yet. The knee is perfectly fine, he said, but Johnson is dealing with some minor back issues. He’s full-go for spring practice, but he’s not at full strength.
Rust for an offensive lineman is not necessarily all physical. There are issues with timing, quarterback cadence, snap counts and technique.
“But all in all, obviously having a big football player who started that many games that can run and move like that is exciting,” said offensive line coach Conor Riley.
Johnson played in 13 games as a true freshman in 2012 and started all 15 games in 2013, which included an offensive lineman of the week honor in the Missouri Valley. He had 13 knockdowns and did not allow a quarterback sack, and the Bison averaged 6.7 yards per carry in a win against Youngstown State.
His setback came on the first day of summer conditioning. He busted out of his three-point stance “and a piece of cartilage just broke off,” he said.
“It was game over from there,” Johnson said.
NDSU toyed with him returning at some point in mid- to late-season, but the decision was made before the season opener to shelve him for the season. He joined center Josh Colville as returning starters out for the season. Colville ended his career with aggravating injuries and also helped out as a student coach.
“You turn around and see two guys who started a ton of football games and helped us win a lot of games that you knew wouldn’t be playing,” Riley said. “But our philosophy doesn’t change. Man down, man up. All these kids are recruited for a reason, and that is for them to step up and to take advantage of their opportunity, and I think our guys have done a good job of that.”
Austin Kuhnert took advantage of Johnson’s absence, getting several starts to help NDSU to a fourth consecutive FCS national title. Now a sophomore, Kuhnert has moved to center to replace Jesse Hinz, and he would have gone there regardless had Johnson come back or not, Riley said.
With the loss of several key players on defense, the Bison are hoping the veteran presence on the offensive line will help take the pressure off six new defensive starters.
“The potential we have is unreal,” Johnson said, “but only if we can get everything down. If we do, there’s no doubt we can be one of the best offensive lines in the country.”