When the Aggies found themselves behind 14-10 in the third quarter against Ole Miss, junior linebacker Buddy Johnson was their saving grace.
On a second-and-7 from A&M’s 25-yard line, A&M juniors Justin Madubuike and Elijah Blades sacked Ole Miss quarterback John Rhys Plumlee, forcing a fumble on the play. Johnson then scooped up the loose ball and returned it 62 yards for a touchdown, giving A&M a 17-14 lead.
“I definitely saw daylight,” Johnson said. “I was seeing through the stands out to the parking lot. I knew I was going for [a touchdown].”
Johnson’s score created momentum for the team that allowed the Aggies to earn the 24-17 win, sophomore linebacker Anthony Hines said.
“That was monumental for us, just to have that big play and get points off of it,” Hines said. “Whenever you can get points on defense, that’s huge, not only the turnover, but also the points. That was a big shift in the game for us, and we continued to build on that.”
The score was A&M’s first defensive touchdown of the season and earned Johnson the title of SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Week, along with LSU’s Jacoby Stevens. Johnson also led the Aggies with 10 tackles for his second-straight game with double-digit tackles, taking his season tackle total to 48.
After the long run, Johnson said he is not opposed to stepping into a role in A&M’s depleted running back rotation.
“I am most definitely up for the challenge,” Johnson said. “I can go back to my high school days.”
Johnson spent his high school career playing offense at Justin F. Kimball High School in Dallas. For the Knights, Johnson took turns at quarterback, running back and wide receiver, as well as outside linebacker and safety.
As a high school junior, Johnson earned second-team all-district honors as quarterback, then was selected first-team all-district as a linebacker his senior season.
Though he has the experience at the position, Johnson said his 62-yard touchdown run made him remember the exhaustion he used to feel as a running back.
“That’s the first thing that came to my mind,” Johnson said. “I see why I don’t run the football anymore. But it was fun; it was good for me to run the ball again.”
Though Johnson started out his college career at outside linebacker, he has moved inside this season to fill a spot vacated by Otaro Alaka, who signed with the Baltimore Ravens in April.
A&M coach Jimbo Fisher said Johnson’s move to the role was challenging for the junior, though he has taken it in stride.
“He’s filled a significant role at which we were light in depth,” Fisher said. “Moving him inside from outside, that’s a different animal. Inside linebacker and outside linebacker is a totally different deal. I’ve seen some guys in the Hall of Fame or [who] were All-Americans in college that couldn’t play inside. That’s hard.”
Following his position change, Johnson has proven to be an invaluable part of the team, Fisher said.
“His ability to adapt and handle that has been huge for our team,” Fisher said. “His leadership for our team, it gets better and better each week. His role keeps growing, and the guys see the way he’s playing. He’s been a big contributing factor for us on this defense.”
Fisher may have high praise for his ability to adapt, but Johnson’s humility is perhaps his shining trait.
Following his Defensive Player of the Week honors, Johnson refused to accept personal recognition for it, saying it was a team honor.
“It’s a big honor for me, but at the end of the day, it’s never been about me,” Johnson said. “My accomplishments are this team’s accomplishments. We’ve just got to keep working. It’s a great accomplishment for us to have.”
Johnson and his defensive touchdown created momentum for the team to finish strong against Ole Miss, and A&M could continue to reap the benefits moving ahead to Saturday’s matchup against Mississippi State, Fisher said.
“Now your confidence grows,” Fisher said. “That’s why I was so happy with this team in that game when things weren’t going as well, looking as good in certain situations — they just kept playing. You’ve got a lot of young guys sometimes that can get frustrated, but that strip sack comes, and you get a big score. The things we’re saying as a coaching staff are happening, and we’re making them happen.”