- Edward Aschoff, ESPN Staff Writer
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Early into LSU's fall camp, defensive tackle Anthony Johnson took a chance with his comfort zone.
Normally one to sit back, listen and watch, Johnson stood up in front of his teammates and coaches and delivered his own set of motivating words. It wasn't anything special, but it caught everyone's attention because of who was speaking.
It took a lot for Johnson, who is viewed as one of the nation's best defensive tackles, to stand up and show himself in that light. And it was a big step in the junior's personal growth as he looks to become the centerpiece of LSU's rebuilt defensive line this fall.
"I've been waiting for this moment for a long time," said Johnson, who has 13 career tackles for loss and four sacks. "I want to take a lead role and show my teammates that I'm here for them and I'm ready to play for them, along with the coaches. I want everybody to get on the same page early so we don't have to worry about it later."
Johnson arrived at LSU as the No. 2 overall player in the 2011 recruiting class, according to ESPN recruiting services. He dealt with the pressure to deliver instant gratification because of his high expectations while trying to adapt to a new way of approaching the game.
Like most freshmen who carry so much hype on their shoulders, the stress built up for Johnson. He wanted to impress and play at a higher level so badly that it sometimes hurt his concentration.
But Johnson quickly found a release.
A tyrant on the football field, Johnson is almost a Teddy bear away from it after rediscovering his passion for singing and joining the campus choir.
He was able to relax through his baritone voice. He'd been singing since his great grandmother introduced him to the 18th-century hymn "Oh Happy Day" when he was four. To this day, that remains his favorite song to sing.
Johnson was able to convey many emotions through song, and while football consumed him to the point of quitting the choir, that year helped him regain some clarity.
"I have to try and stay smooth. I have to keep my tough on-field persona, but when I step off the field I have to get back to the regular me," he said.
The regular him was feeling more confident and ready to learn more. He acted like a giant sponge as he soaked up run-stopping advice from older linemen like Michael Brockers and Bennie Logan. He took notes whenever Barkevious Mingo gave him pass-rushing tips. And he spent hours working with defensive coordinator John Chavis in and out of the film room to perfect his technique and movements.
He might have been getting the essentials down in his head, but in order to carry them out properly, Johnson needed to change his body. Johnson figured his 330-plus-pound playing weight as a freshman gave him an edge at clogging holes, but it was his mother who didn't approve. After seeing her following his first season, his mother noticed his gut spilling over his belt and diagnosed him with "Dunlop Disease" because of the Dunlop tire-shaped stomach Johnson had developed.
Humbled by his mother's assessment, Johnson jumped right into weight room harder and chose grilled over fried.
When Johnson addressed his teammates this month, he did so at a leaner 295 pounds. He doesn't feel like a featherweight, but he's moving faster (he ran a 4.7 40-yard dash this year) and frustrating his offensive teammates more.
"That helped get me back on my feet and do what I did back in high school: get in the backfield," Johnson said of shedding the weight.
"I still have my power and everything, but I'm just a little bit quicker and run to the ball a lot faster."
Trimming down resulted in more disruption from Johnson last fall. He registered 42 tackles, including 10 tackles for loss and three sacks last season, and rediscovered the nasty edge that made him so dominant in high school. That nastiness has only grown since the beginning of spring, Johnson said.
Labeled "The Freak" since his high school days and trying his best to mirror NFL superstar Geno Atkins on the field, Johnson is hungry to not only elevate his game, but that of the entire defense around him. He's making it his responsibility to get a defense that lost so much back into championship form.
That starts with anchoring a line that lost four NFL draft picks. It's a tall task, but Johnson has already changed so much that this seems easier than everything else he's done.
"They think this is going to be a rebuilding year, but we're doing nothing but reloading," Johnson said.
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