When Central Washington University’s senior center went down with an injury halfway through the season, Peninsula High School grad and redshirt freshman Reece Johnson had his number called.
He was up for the challenge.
Johnson started the final five games at the center position and helped lead the Wildcats to the No. 11 ranked rushing attack in the nation. Central finished 11-1 and advanced to the regional quarterfinals where they eventually lost in double overtime.
“I think it went really well for me,” Johnson said. “When the starting center went out, it was pretty seamless. … I had been competing the whole first half of the season for that spot. We were in a position battle every week. I felt ready for it.”
Of course, it was a bit nerve-wracking at first for the underclassman, being suddenly thrust into a starting role in one of the most integral positions along the offensive line.
“All the guys (on the offensive line) really picked me up,” Johnson said. “Our culture with the O-line was really good last season. It’ll be the same this season, if not better. We just encourage each other.”
While the offensive line often doesn’t receive the praise, CWU’s rushing attack wouldn’t have been what it was without their play.
“It was a great experience to be able to contribute to that,” Johnson said. “We have the same focus this year, with running being our first mentality when we play. We made a lot of progress with the play-action ball. We have the same game plan.”
Johnson said he learned a lot in his redshirt season the season before last, adjusting to the physicality and nuances of the college game.
“The process you have to go through pre-snap is a lot different than high school, and then finding the assignment for the play,” Johnson said. “There’s a lot of pre-snap adjustments to how the defense is aligned. It influences what your job is on that play.”
Once Johnson got a chance to prove himself as a starter, he took the opportunity and ran with it. He always felt he had the support of his teammates, even before the season had even started.
“I feel like I had their trust ever since I started the past season, from day one of fall camp,” Johnson said. “They were pushing me to start for that starting spot. They wanted to bring the best out of both of us.”
Johnson said the offensive line works hard in practice and never wants to be the weak spot. That starts with offensive line coach Chris Fisk.
“He’s always focused on us as a group, emphasizing getting better,” Johnson said. “We try to focus on practice where we never have a lull. We always want to be on top of everything. Going through that in practice every day, replicating that, it just pays off in the games like it did last fall.”
Johnson's first start came against the University of North Alabama, a program which had been in the national title game the previous year. The Wildcats won, 17-10, while rushing for 235 yards and averaging 4.8 yards per attempt. Both of Central's touchdowns came on short runs (1- and 4-yards).
"When they walk a team out on the field, they look a little different," Fisk said. "They're a little bit bigger, longer, athletic. He dominated in that game. When people saw that, they knew we had a guy that could be a four-year starter for us."
The offensive line took a ton of pride in having the nation's 11th-ranked rushing attack.
"That's what our program is built around: a strong run game and great defense," Fisk said.
Having half of a season of starting experience should pay dividends for Johnson in the fall. With four of the five members of last year’s line returning, Johnson feels confident about this team’s chances.
“I feel pretty confident playing in games, all the experience I got last year and throughout those games,” Johnson said. “There’s still some things you have to work on. I’m looking to build on what I played on last year, and that raise that level of play.”
As for which area Johnson hopes to take the next step? He wants to continue becoming a better — and louder — leader.
“The biggest thing is just being more vocal,” Johnson said. “It doesn’t come to you right away, for a guy that’s stepping in. So it’s just about being vocal, taking control as a center. It’s come a long way for me since last fall.”
For Fisk, the center is one of the team's most important positions. He knows Johnson is ready for the challenge for a full season.
"I'm looking forward to him taking the next step," Fisk said. "Coming in, he was a little tentative with the communication process we need from our center. He's the second quarterback on the field, establishing our blocking schemes, setting protections. I'm just excited to see him take the next step in terms of vocal communication and having a take-charge attitude. I have no doubt that he'll do a great job."
Central opens its season against Eastern Washington University in Cheney on Sept. 1. Kickoff is set for 1:05 p.m.