Gophers fall camp Day 4: DT Roland Johnson feeling '100 percent' again
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MINNEAPOLIS -- The road back from ACL surgery last December hasn't been an easy one for Gophers senior defensive tackle Roland Johnson. But with four fall camp practices behind him, he said his left knee is feeling "100 percent."
Johnson has been in recovery mode since November when a misstep in a walkthrough prior to the Gophers' second to last game of the regular season ended the junior college transfer's promising year.
After undergoing surgery in December, Johnson was not able to practice in the spring. The 6-foot-1, 286-pound tackle has worked tirelessly in the months since to regain his mobility and overcome the mental strain that comes with a major knee injury. By summer workouts, he was finally starting to feel like himself again.
Johnson, now free of any lingering pain, has had no limitations put on him so far in camp, working right back into where he was in the D-line rotation behind starting tackles Ra'Shede Hageman and Cameron Botticelli.
"It feels really good," Johnson said of the knee. "I feel like things are getting better and better every day. I've got high hopes about it."
However, he admitted he still hasn't fully overcome the mental side of coming back to play full-tilt after an injury.
"I still haven't gotten to point where I'm not thinking about it," Johnson said.
That last stage in his recovery will only come in time, and it is still early enough in camp that there are no concerns that he will be ready to go when the Gophers open the season against UNLV.
Johnson's return is a key development for the Gophers, adding to the building depth they have accumulated at tackle. Only weeks prior to when he was injured, Johnson was performing arguably as well as any player on the "U" D-line. He was just starting to show to he had reached a notable comfort level with the defense, and was earning hearty praise from the coaching staff after recording seven tackles and recovering a fumble against Illinois.
He tore his ACL only a few days later.
But in the eyes of coach Jerry Kill, Johnson's performance early in camp has reassured him that the senior from Camden, S.C. can once again be a critical cog in the Gophers' defensive line.
"He's looked very, very good and very sharp, strong," Kill said. "He played a lot of minutes for us and I thought it was a pretty big blow when he got hurt. So him being healthy will certainly make us a better football team and with stopping the run."
Notes from Day 4 of fall camp
• Cornerback Derrick Wells was limited for the second consecutive day with a sore shoulder. Again, the Gophers are considering this a very minor injury. But given that Wells is locked into a starting corner spot, the Gophers are being cautious, with no reason to rush him back.
• After being limited Sunday, senior running back James Gillum was held out of practice due to ongoing back tightness. Gillum was taking reps primarily with the second team offense before his back flared up. Kill expects Gillum to return to practice fully in the "next couple of days."
• Offensive tackle Jonah Pirsig (knee) remains in a green limited contact jersey, and he'll probably stay in one for at least a few more days. Kill said he's being tentative to clear him for full contact, keeping him out of any 11-on-11 drills.
• New linebacker De'Vondre Campbell has become a much buzzed about player in the first few days of camp, earning substantial recognition from both Kill and defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys.
Linebackers coach Bill Miller is impressed with what he has seen so far from the 6-foot-5, 225-pound transfer from Hutchinson Community College, but he is holding off on making a specific evaluation.
"He looks the part," Miller said. "There's a lot of guys that look the part that aren't the part. We haven't had really had a lot of full contact. I think that is going to tell the true story. He's still in a proving mode, but so far, so good. I'm positive about him. He's very mobile, a good athlete, has good flexibility."
• Kill dubbed former wide receiver, now cornerback Marcus Jones as a "miracle-heal guy" in light of how quickly he has recovered from his second ACL surgery in two years.
"He probably looks faster and quicker now than the day he came in," Kill said. "He's put on a little bit of weight. He's playing corner and he's really played well in camp. He's been impressive with what he's done."
Jones still has a significant battle in front of him if he wants to earn playing time at corner, where he shifted over to soon after his second injury. Jones enters a mix in which Eric Murray, Briean Boddy, Jeremy Baltazar and Martez Shabazz, all of whom have one year of experience, are also vying for the same spot.
• Tuesday will mark the Gophers' first practice in full pads, but Kill doesn't plan on deviating from how practice has looked in the last couple of days. Kill said the team won't open the players up for tackling until their scrimmage on Saturday.
• Besides a reconstructed and once again healthy knee, Johnson is also sporting a new hairdo. Johnson was cutting his hair when his roommate, sophomore running back Rodrick Williams Jr. came up with an idea. Williams, who happens to have a mohawk that he dyed blonde, jokingly shaved one into Johnson's hair before running out of the room. Johnson said his teammates ended up liking the new look, so he has stuck with it.