When Tervaris Johnson was switched from the secondary to tight end in the spring of 2008, Joe Pannunzio took it as if the 6-3, 240-pound senior was being given his last chance to make something of himself as a Hurricane.
“When they gave him to me, I was like ‘All right I guess they’re giving him to me to run him the hell out of here,’” Pannunzio joked Wednesday morning. “Next thing I know he’s playing. Thank god we got him.”
According to Pannunzio Johnson is UM’s “most unsung hero on offense.” With fullback Patrick Hill injured and tight end Richard Gordon out for the season, Johnson has stepped up and filled a big void for the Hurricanes as a blocking back and tight end. He’s caught two passes for 24 yards and made a few big blocks according to his position coach.
“He does all the things nobody else sees and all the little things that really make us function,” Pannunzio said. “He’s probably the most improved guy – he is the most improved guy I have. He blocks when we need him to block. He’s made a couple catches when we’ve needed him to catch. He’s been a huge, huge factor for us. The other day [at UCF] we’re on the goal line with a quick play, sweep play and he just buries the edge. He’s a guy if you were lucky enough to come back and watch the films you’d say that 23 has something to him. I’m really proud of how he’s developed.”
Of course, this wasn’t how Johnson’s career was supposed to pan out. Considered the fourth best safety in the country by Rivals during his senior year at Monsignor Pace, Johnson wowed UM coaches when he earned Defensive MVP honors at their 2005 summer camp. But much like Damien Berry, who came to UM as a safety, Johnson has found new life in the Canes backfield.
“Whether I’m blocking or running routes, I know my role and I’m all for the team,” Johnson said. “Blocking was the biggest thing people thought was going to be a problem for me. But coming from the defensive side of the ball, I’m aggressive. It wasn’t a problem with me.”
Johnson said what he enjoys most about where he’s playing now are the mismatches he can create because of his speed and ability. Johnson was a force on offense in high school. I was there the day he caught a long pass in the 2003 Class 3A state championship to set up the winning touchdown in the fourth quarter as a sophomore. But he has no regrets the way his career has gone.
“To me, I’ve finally found a place,” Johnson said. “The coaches feel I’m versatile. I’ll help the team wherever I can.”
PANNUNZIO TALKS SPECIAL TEAMS/TIGHT ENDS: While most fans feel Pannunzio hasn’t done a very good job as the special teams coordinator, UM’s stats tell somewhat of a different story.
> While UM’s kickoff coverage against Florida State and Georgia Tech was atrocious, the Canes have gotten a lot better over their last four games as walk-on Alex Uribe has settled into his new job. While the Yellow Jackets and Seminoles enjoyed an average field position of the 40-yard line and nearly a 22-yard average on returns, UM has been much better since. Opponents have averaged just 19 yards a return and have had an average field position following kickoffs of their own 26-yard line over the last four games. Opponents have returned it beyond their own 40 just once (FAMU’s LeRoy Vann returned it to the 45), and eight times beyond their own 30. The other 12 kickoffs have been returned for less than that.
> Matt Bosher has punted 22 times this season. He’s had one blocked and another snap sail over his head. But of the 22 he’s put his foot on, only three have really been returned. Oklahoma’s Dominique Franks brought one back 51 yards to the UM 48. That return alone accounted for most of the 14.3 yard average opponents have had. Of the other 19 punts Bosher has delivered: seven have resulted in fair catches, six were downed, two went out bounds, two were touchbacks and two were fumbles recovered by the receiving team.
> Continuing to do a good job on kickoff and punt coverage will be important this week against C.J. Spiller and Jacoby Ford, two spectacular athletes with track speed and tremendous ability in the open field. They’ve combined to return nine kicks or punts back in their careers for scores. Clemson ranks seventh in punt returns and eighth in kickoff returns nationally.
“They’re talented guys,” Pannunzio said. “[Ford] is every bit as good as Eddie [Royal] was for Virginia Tech. That guy could run me out of this job if we don’t hem him up.”
> Pannunzio agreed with UM coach Randy Shannon, who said what has made Uribe effective on kickoffs has been “hangtime.”
“It seems like since they changed the rule and move the ball back to the 30, your not getting the touch backs you used to have,” Pannunzio said. “The ball would go out the back of the end zone. Now, these balls are getting returned. The same thing is happening in the NFL. So, you need to really make sure your guys get down there to cover. [Spiller and Ford] aren’t guys you are going to bring down with one guy. You need to get two or three guys around them.”
> Pannunzio stressed what a huge loss Jordan Futch (torn ACL) was to UM’s special teams two weeks ago. “On kickoff returns he made our kickoff return go because he would take on double teams,” Pannunzio said. “On kickoff coverage he was a wild man, go and take out the wedge and everybody else would clean up. We have to find a guy. We probably don’t have that guy just yet. The guys who have to step up and do that are Ray Buchanon, Ray Ray Armstrong, Arthur Brown, Kylan Robinson and CJ Holton. Those guys have to develop and take over that role Jordan had for us.”
> While Corey Nelms has provided a jolt to the special teams as a walk-on, UM’s most productive tackler on special teams is actually sophomore Arthur Brown. I went through all six games and tallied up who had solo and assisted tackles on punts and kickoffs. AB is the man. Here are the totals: Arthur Brown 4 1/2, Alex Uribe 4, Damien Berry 3 1/2, CJ Holton 3, Matt Bosher 3, Ray Buchanon 2 1/2, Corey Nelms 2 1/2, Ray Ray Armstrong 2, DeMarcus Van Dyke 2, Sam Shields 2, Jordan Futch 1 1/2, Lee Chambers 1/2, Brandon McGee 1/2, Ryan Hill 1/2, Kylan Robinson 1/2, Kendall Thompkins 1/2, John Calhoun 1/2, Tommy Streeter 1/2.
> Pannunzio said redshirt freshman Jake Wieclaw is continuing to work on strengthening his leg. “His thing is he’s a real accurate field goal guy and you have to play to your kids strengths,” Pannunzio said. “That’s what he really does good. He’s a guy whose leg strength isn’t exactly what you’d want. A year ago nobody – including myself – put Alex Uribe in this mix. But kids develop and things change. He’s got to work on his leg strength.”
> As for the tight end position, freshman Billy Sanders is currently the only player expected back at the position next year. Pannunzio said Sanders is benefiting from being the only tight end on the scout team. “When you factor in my bad coaching,” Pannunzio said. “We got to make sure we get a lot of good players [in recruiting].”