ATLANTA — Mario Butler has a secret, but it can’t reach Isaiah Johnson’s ears.
“I don’t want to compare him, but he reminds me a lot of Morgan (Burnett) when he was a freshman. He has that same kind of capability,” said Butler, comparing the Yellow Jackets’ true freshman safety to a departed All-ACC veteran.
Then, seconds later, with a sarcastic smile, Butler added, “You’ve got to keep that on the low. We’ve got to let him get there first.”
Sorry, Mario. The secret’s out.
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The hush-hush matter isn’t really a secret. A split second after Johnson laid out a B-back during a seven-on-seven drill this spring, it became basic knowledge to many around the program that this young player was about to embark on what should be a very successful career at Georgia Tech. A fond pat on the helmet right after the play from venerable assistant Al Groh all but sealed that collective thought.
Not to mention, during his news conference Saturday, head coach Paul Johnson singled out Isaiah Johnson as the one true freshman who he knew would see playing time this season.
Whatever Paul Johnson sees, it’s clear his players have tapped into it, as well.
“With all that coming out of my mouth and knowing I played on the side of Morgan for three years, you know, hey, he has that kind of potential,” Butler said.
Isaiah Johnson would argue that Butler’s eye for talent is dead-on. For Burnett — the former Yellow Jackets safety who was drafted in April by the Green Bay Packers — was the singular player Isaiah Johnson long wanted to emulate.
“I’ve been watching him since he was in high school, so I knew he had good talent and had good ball skills, how he attacked the ball,” Isaiah Johnson said of Burnett. “I love making interceptions and getting the ball in my hands.”
Burnett tied for the national lead in interceptions with seven in 2008.
Since he hails from nearby Tyrone, a short drive southwest of Atlanta, Isaiah Johnson said he often caught his share of Georgia Tech games. What was his primary reason? He wanted to watch Burnett.
“Me, I love football — been playing since I was 7 — but I never really watched it. But still, since I was living around Atlanta, I always looked at Georgia Tech and Morgan Burnett,” said Isaiah Johnson, who was given Burnett’s old jersey number when he enrolled early this spring. “The way Morgan Burnett attacked the ball and made plays on the ball, it was extraordinary to me.
“That’s why I’m proud to be wearing the No. 1.”
Perhaps the most striking comparison between the two doesn’t just come from the manner in which they go after passes and rush ballcarriers, Butler said. Both carry themselves with very similar demeanors.
“He has that same quiet but confident nature that Morgan has,” Butler said. “He has that great ball ability to catch the ball and just diagnosing plays. Even though he’s young, he’s catching on to the system quickly. That’s one thing Morgan did also. He caught onto the system quickly and put himself in the right position to make plays.”
As far as positioning goes, that is an area Isaiah Johnson said he wanted to continue to develop. While he hasn’t heard too many negative criticisms from secondary coach Charles Kelly, Isaiah Johnson said he knows he has to refine his ability of going back to cover deep passes.
“I know Coach (Kelly) hasn’t told me that, but I know that’s something I need to improve myself,” Isaiah Johnson said, “because with (practicing against) Georgia Tech’s offense, we’re really a run team, and I really need to tell myself to get back (when not facing it).
“All my high school years, I really didn’t have to because of the speed I had to do that. But in college, it’s about being patient on the run and playing pass first.”
He got a rude lesson in learning that balance between run and pass this spring.
During the T-Day spring game, Isaiah Johnson remembered being burned by a receiver when he cheated up to guard against the run. When he did that, a pass came his way, and the receiver went racing by him. That sight motivates him to find the proper coverage balance.
“I was so anxious about coming up, trying to make a play and impress the coaches, and next thing you know, it’s a pass and I’m running up, and it’s going back behind me,” Isaiah Johnson said. “It’s just being patient like I said. Knowing what to do, and just do your assignment.
“Just like when Coach Groh says, if you fall off the boat in the river raft going downstream, you’ve got to be able to hold your own weight.”
Listening to Butler, Isaiah Johnson, generally speaking, may be holding his own weight just fine.