Written by Sean Meyers
Heading into the 2012 season, the Pittsburgh Steelers added a relatively unknown fullback to their 53-man roster. One year later, West Virginia University product Will Johnson could be a critical piece in the Steelers’ offensive gameplan.
Johnson’s path to becoming an NFL player was not typical. In 2007, he played wide receiver for the Mountaineers as a true freshman, but caught only one pass. He was converted to a hybrid tight end/fullback, but accumulated very modest collegiate numbers. When Johnson completed his senior year at WVU, he had 25 career catches for less than 250 yards the Mountaineers.
Unheralded in college, Johnson went undrafted in 2011, and did not make an NFL roster. He signed with the Steelers in March 2012, however, and made enough of an impression through camp and preseason to earn a spot on the team.
Not only did Johnson make the team, but he played in all 16 games, starting seven. He also bested his single-season receptions and receiving yards marks from college, as Johnson hauled in 15 passes for 137 yards.
In his first season in the NFL, Johnson’s primary job was the create running room for the Steelers tailbacks. “I think here in this offense, it’s still run first and that’s my job to go out and be a dominant run blocker,” he detailed.
That task proved difficult for the converted wide receiver, although Johnson embraced the challenge. Blocking techniques did not come easy for Johnson, and the 6-foot-2, 238 pound Johnson constantly worked to improve his pad level and leverage. “My goal is always strive to be better,” he said.
Growing up in Dayton, Ohio, Johnson never envisioned himself being a fullback, nor did he take note of many of the prominent fullbacks such as Mike Alstott, William Floyd or Daryl Johnston. “I didn’t watch any fullbacks growing up,” he noted. “I was already a receiver type.”
In the statistical and highlight-driven world of the NFL, fullbacks are often overlooked and under appreciated. That suits Johnson just fine, however. “I’ve always been that type of guy to just go out and do what the coaches ask and be a team player,” the 23-year-old noted.
In recent years, many teams have reduced or completely eliminated the role of fullback in the offense. Furthermore, some teams use the fullback and tight end interchangeably. “I do believe it’s becoming more of an H-back role,” Johnson said. “You’re starting to see more utility guys who can do more things.”
The Steelers, historically noted for their smashmouth running attack, still see the value of a lead blocker. If the 2013 preseason is an indication, however, Johnson could be targeted more often in the passing game. “I’m excited and glad for the opportunity for them to use me to do other things as far as the passing game,” he intimated.
After facing a myriad of position and role changes, Johnson thinks he is ready to take on more offensively responsibility with the black and gold. Just like he has shown during his entire football career, Johnson will be patient and ready to succeed when given the opportunity.
“That will all come as i start to gain and earn the coaches trust,” he explained. “I believe they’ll start to utilize me more if I prove I can handle the load and continue to make plays.”