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Most rookie free agents need some time before the head coach actually knows the name that goes with the uniform number. Then there’s Rishaw Johnson.
During a town hall meeting with fans at CenturyLink Field last month, Pete Carroll was mentioning the players the Seahawks had retained and acquired on the offensive line this offseason. The list he rattled through included the obvious: the re-signings of Breno Giacomini and Paul McQuistan; the free-agent additions of Deuce Lutui, Frank Omiyale and Alex Barron; even the conversion to guard of J.R. Sweezy, a defensive tackle from North Carolina State who was drafted in the seventh round.
Then came the not-so-obvious: Rishaw Johnson.
“I want you to watch Rishaw Johnson, now,” the Seahawks’ coach said of the 6-foot-3, 313-pound guard from California (Pa.) University. “This guy is an exciting football player.”
Carroll then matched his words with his actions, as Johnson worked at right guard with the No. 1 line the very next day.
The declaration, and decision that followed, caught everyone by surprise – including Johnson.
“I heard it through the grapevine; some people told me about it,” he said this week, when the rookie free agents are completing their final offseason workouts before taking an extended break until training camp opens in late July.
“I was pretty excited when I heard that.”
But he couldn’t let excitement morph into a premature sense of security.
“I can’t get too excited,” Johnson said. “I’ve still got to bust it and do everything I’ve got to do to make the team. But it was still good to hear that coach Carroll said that.”
It wasn’t the first time Johnson had heard good things about himself, and he’s hoping it won’t be the last. In July of 2010, the school website at Cal U called Johnson, “easily the most talented of the team’s interior linemen.” Pre-draft reports this offseason described Johnson as “light on his feet” and “fluid” and as having “outstanding pulling ability.”
Johnson doesn’t just play big, he is big – with 11-inch hands, 35-inch arms, an 81-inch wingspan and, of course, those 313 pounds.
The obvious question: How does a guy this good and this big end up at a little school like California University?
Johnson started his career at the University of Mississippi, but was dismissed from the team in 2010 for “violation of team rules.” That was after starting the season opener at right guard.
“I got in trouble,” Johnson said. “That’s why I had to switch schools.”
Johnson said it’s also the reason he was not selected in the draft.
“Going into the combine, I thought I was going in the second or third round,” Johnson said. “But all my off-field stuff kind of caught up with me.”
And forced him to make the leap from Division II to the NFL, which is a lot closer to quantum than casual.
“It’s a big jump,” Johnson said. “But playing in the SEC, it kind of prepared me for it. But this compared to Cal Pa., it’s night and day.
“But I’ve adjusted well and I think I’m getting used to it.”
Not to mention getting to work occasionally with the starters, as line coach Tom Cable mixed and matched his 15 linemen in a myriad of quintets during the spring OTA practices and minicamps. Carroll and his staff are not afraid to play rookies, because they want to find out what they might have rather than fretting over what they let get away.
“Being a free agent, I got to pick where I wanted to go,” Johnson said. “That’s one of the reasons I came here, because I knew Pete Carroll will give guys a chance and give undrafted free agents a chance to play. So that’s why I came here.
“I’m blessed to be here. I can’t complain. My past is hard to overcome. But me coming here is a fresh start. Coach Carroll told me he’s going to give me a fresh start. He’s not worrying about what happened in the past. He wants to see what kind of guy I am. He’s not going to judge me off what other people say. I’m just trying to be a first-class citizen and show him that I was just young in those days, and that’s why I made those mistakes.
“I’m happy coach Carroll gave me a shot.”
Not to mention a shout-out.