Wesley Johnson finds himself in a rare position this spring because he is in one position.
A mainstay on the Vanderbilt offensive line the last three years, Johnson is digging in at left tackle halfway through spring workouts. The fifth-year senior has been a versatile option for the Commodores but is one of many who benefits from the increased depth up front. Last March, Vanderbilt had just seven healthy offensive linemen and had to play for both teams in the spring game. This year, the Commodores have 13 linemen.
“The depth is awesome,” Johnson said after practice Thursday. “It really allows you to focus on very specific fundamentals on each position.”
Not that Johnson has ever honed in on just one position.
Since redshirting the 2009 season, the Montgomery Bell Academy product has started all 38 games of his career. But what impresses offensive line coach Herb Hand even more is those starts have come at four different positions — 26 at left tackle, seven at center, three at right tackle and two at right guard.
“That in itself in is unbelievable — how versatile the guy is,” said Hand, who has coached Johnson the last three years. “The thing I always worry about with him is being a jack of all trades, master of none because he has played so many different spots. But I also know there is great value in that and it has really helped us maintain depth throughout the course of a long season. It has been a real value and asset to us.”
A viable asset at that.
In 2010, despite being undersized at left tackle, he stayed healthy on an injury-plagued offensive line and earned Southeastern Conference All-Freshman honors. Two years ago, he helped pave the way for Zac Stacy’s record-setting season while playing center, left tackle and left guard. Last year, he again opened holes for Stacy and protected Jordan Rodgers en route to All-SEC honorable mention accolades.
While others grew up around him — six returners have started at least one game — Johnson remained consistent.
“He has played 2,462 snaps and never been called for a hold,” Hand said. “That doesn’t mean he has never held. He has just never been called for it. But he prides himself on his technique and he plays really hard. He is always moving his feet and he doesn’t get himself in position to hold. Now, knock on wood, he doesn’t go through next season and get 10 holding calls.”
Johnson, the lone returning senior starter, enters his final spring beefed up to 287 pounds.
The bulkier frame is vast improvement from his prep days. The 6-foot-5 Johnson weighed 250 pounds his senior year at MBA. But the former coaching regime fell in love with Johnson’s work ethic and technique. Vanderbilt was the first school to offer Johnson — on national signing day his junior year.
It was a special day for Johnson, who had been a fan of Vanderbilt since his family moved from Little Rock, Ark., to Nashville when he was in the fourth grade.
“I don’t know if it was a dream,” said Johnson, whose grandfather played center and linebacker at Hofstra. “But I knew I wanted to play college football and Vanderbilt was definitely probably the best option for me. That was the first offer. It was pretty emotional around the house because that is when I realized I was playing college football.”
Five years later, Johnson has developed a niche on the offensive line.
With his ability to adapt, he has provided a model of consistency for the Commodores even when everything around him has been anything but steady.
“If you had a line made up of 10-12 Wes Johnsons, you’re not going to lose,” Hand said. “Not that I’m not happy with all the rest of the guys — I really love my group right now. But Wes certainly has been a model for what we look for in a player. That is a guy that really understands our core values of having a positive attitude, great work ethic, compete in everything you do and be willing to sacrifice. Wes has demonstrated all of those things and that is what makes him really special.”