MOBILE, Ala. – Ask around about University of South Alabama’s Gi’Narious Johnson and you’ll frequently hear two words associated with the defensive lineman.

The first is work.

“Gi’Narious embodies the things that we are trying to build as a culture defensively and on our team.  You don’t have to be the loudest guy in the room, you don’t have to be the most vocal, but regardless of how you feel every single day you come out and work,” says first-year Jaguar head coach Kane Wommack.  “Big boys oftentimes are not going to feel the best when they come out to practice, but you never see him complain.  He just goes about his business every single day, and that is the neutral mindset that we talk about all the time; regardless of success or adversity, whether you feel good or you feel bad going into a game, you just work.

“That’s exactly what he comes to do every day.”

“His work ethic, Gi’Narious is just a hard worker,” adds Landius Wilkerson, his position coach.  “He is the strongest guy on the team, but he continues to always work hard.  He doesn’t say a whole lot, it’s just work, work, work.”

It doesn’t take long for Johnson to acknowledge where his work ethic comes from.

“It starts with my mom,” he says.  “She worked two jobs when I was in high school, she woke up at 5 o’clock in the morning to go to one job and as soon as she got off she had an hour to change clothes and go to her other job.  She would get home from there around 12 o’clock at night and have to repeat that throughout the week.

“My senior year of high school I barely saw her unless she was coming to my game, and sometimes she had to miss my games.  Her mental toughness inspired me.  When I was in junior college I tore my UCL but I still played all my games.  I think she gave me her mental toughness which has allowed me to push through.”

It certainly is one of the reasons Johnson finds himself in the position he is in today.  Despite earning all-region honors all three years on the varsity at Gulfport (Miss.) High School — as well as finishing his prep career as a three-time state champion powerlifter — he did not have a single scholarship offer from a four-year school.  Not just at the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision level, but the Bowl Championship Subdivision and Division II levels as well.

How does a high school recruit with those credentials slip through the cracks?

“Honestly, I’m not sure,” Johnson responds.  “When I was going through it I was aggravated, I was upset and getting depressed.  I was an all-region player, a three-time state champion powerlifter, I had great grades and I was on the mayor’s youth council.  I was wondering why I didn’t have any type of offers — Division I, HBCU, Division II — and there were just two JuCo offers.

“Looking back at it now, I’m thankful that it happened because it helped me develop a mental mindset to never be satisfied or give up and to just keep working.  I have carried that over here at South Alabama.”

His lone season at Pearl River (Miss.) Community College didn’t change that narrative.  Despite the UCL injury, Johnson was credited with 46 tackles — including 3½ behind the line of scrimmage — three passes broken up and a forced fumble in just nine games.  In the Wildcats’ games against their best opposition, he regularly posted some of his best numbers of the year: a season-high nine stops against 16th-ranked Itawamba (Miss.) C.C., six in a match-up with nationally-ranked East Central (Miss.) C.C. and five at No. 19 Mississippi Gulf Coast C.C.

But until the coaching staff at South Alabama came calling, the number of scholarship offers Johnson received to move on to a four-year program ended up the same as when he was in high school.


“I still wonder about that, it’s still surprising to me,” Johnson says.  “When I was in junior college I had coaches calling asking me if I was a bad student with bad grades, why wasn’t I a Division I player right now?  I had to tell them my grades were fine, I am an excellent student and I was a part of the mayor’s youth council.  It made me mad at first, but I’m thankful it happened because it helped with my mindset and my grit to go out and continue to chase my dream.”

Within Wilkerson’s quote above, South’s defensive line coach touched on the other word linked most frequently to Johnson in conversation — strength.  Although it may not have always benefitted the 6-foot, 295-pound lineman on the interior.

“He can bench press a house, and with a shorter frame it is hard for offensive linemen to get underneath him,” Wommack explains.  “Because he is so powerful in his upper and lower body, he just doesn’t get moved.  The thing that we challenged him with in the spring — and he has taken his game to another level in fall camp and now as we prepare for the season — is to make plays.

“He’s not just a stump that holds point and lets somebody else make a play, he actually will disengage from an offensive lineman and make a play himself.”

“The biggest thing he needed to work on was his pass rush,” says Wilkerson.  “He is a natural run stopper — he’s short, powerful and strong — so he just had to work on converting to the pass rush.  He’s added some tools to the toolbox for that, he wants to be an every-down player.”

Not that the results have been poor since Johnson joined the Jaguar program in 2019.  Two years ago he finished with 13 stops, highlighted by 1½ sacks, while playing in all 12 of the team’s contests.  He nearly doubled that total last season, posting 23 tackles with three for loss on his way to receiving honorable mention all-Sun Belt Conference recognition.

And that was despite the fact that Johnson had to rely on his strength to get through the campaign.  Within the first month of the campaign he had suffered a bilateral sports hernia that would plague him the rest of the fall.

“I thought I was fine, but when I got to the sideline the next thing you know it just started to hurt a lot,” Johnson recalls.  “I tried to tough it out, but in practice I worked a move on a guy and the other side popped.  I just continued to play, I didn’t want to miss the season.”

Having overcome that injury has Johnson excited about what the future holds for him individually.

“I’m not trying to make any excuses, but I played with a bilateral sports hernia last year.  It was something I needed surgery for, but I decided to keep playing and I feel that kind of held me back a little bit,” he says.  “I feel healthier this year, I think if I go out there and just play my game and do everything that Coach Wilkerson has taught me that I’ve expanded my game and I can give even better effort than last year.  Maybe that will give me a chance to earn higher honors.”

There’s another reason Johnson believes he can build on what he has accomplished the last two seasons.  Although it has been less than a year since the Jaguars had a change in the coaching staff, he is confident in the knowledge he has already gained under Wilkerson’s tutelage.

“There’s been a lot of things he’s helped us with, but the biggest thing is he has helped increase my knowledge of the game,” says Johnson.  “He will tell us if the other guys line up a certain way this is what the play is going to look like, and when you go to practice it’s exactly what he said it was going to be.  Knowing that has helped improve my game, I’m more confident.  I’m grateful he is here to be our coach.”

“I think the sky is the limit for ‘G.’  He is a leader on this team, guys respect him and everybody on the team looks up to him,” Wilkerson says.  “He is the type of person who is always going to work, you can give him any drill to work on and he’ll come out here and work on it by himself.  He is a kid who I can see getting better and better because he is always going to work at it.”

Born and raised in Gulfport, Johnson has spent nearly all his life on the Gulf Coast with the exception of one year the family live in Waterloo, Iowa, after being displaced by Hurricane Katrina.  “It was nice to see actual snow for the first time,” he recalls.  “It was weird at first, trying to make a snowball was harder than I thought, but it was nice.  I really liked it up there, Waterloo is very pretty.”

He began playing football as an eight-year old, following in the footsteps of both his father and older brother.  But it wasn’t until much later that he developed a passion for the game.

“I honestly didn’t start falling in love with football until my 10th-grade year in high school, that was when I played my first varsity game,” Johnson explains.  “I just listened to the crowd, had the feeling of making a play and thought, ‘Wow, I really love this and want to do this.'”

During those years was also when Johnson gained an interest in working in the weight room.

“It was really because I was bullied growing up.  When you look at me now you would think I was the bully growing up, but that wasn’t the case,” he says.  “I got tired of being called fat, so I got into doing push ups.  My dad loved the gym, I was 13 when I got my first membership and started working out with him.  I fell in love with it; the gym became a second home for me.  Coach Logan — who I am still close to this day — is still like a second father to me.  I could tell in that first year of powerlifting there was a brotherhood and a bond, and when we won state that year it just felt like something real special.”

Despite those experiences, Johnson is more than just a big guy relying on only a solid work ethic and his strength.  “I like to tell people I have two sides to me; I have a professional side and a friendly side that I like to bring when I’m off the field around other people.  But when I’m out on the field I have a job to do, I have to knock a guy back and go make plays and take on double teams.  I can’t have that friendly mindset, I have to basically be a beast.”

“It’s funny, with the room we have everybody is silly; a lot of guys are jokesters,” says Wilkerson.  “He doesn’t say as much as everybody else when it comes to joking, but he will slide one in every now and then.  When he talks, everybody listens.  He is kind of as serious in meetings as he is on the field.  The boys tell me on game day he doesn’t talk to anybody — coaches included — so I’m waiting to experience that; they say he will walk around all morning long just mad.”

Wilkerson won’t have to wait long to see Johnson’s game-day preparation in person with the Jaguars set to open the 2021 season on Saturday night against Southern Mississippi at Hancock Whitney Stadium.  It’s one that he is excited about based on changes he has seen in the program since Wommack’s arrival in December.

“It was the little things they did,” Johnson explains.  “We have an accountability board, if one guy misses an assignment the whole team has to pay.  I’ve never been in a program where it’s like that, normally when somebody messes up they take the punishment.  Now if you mess up the whole team takes the punishment, which is the same as a game.  If you get out of your gap and the other team runs the ball, you didn’t give them six points.  It’s on us, we gave them six points.  That’s when I knew they were coming here to change this program and take us away from the individuality we had and make us more of a team.

“I expect a team that is going to dominate if we play how we are supposed to play,” he continues.  “If we eliminate mistakes and play our game the way we practice every day we’ll do really well.  I expect a winning team this year and a complete change in our program.”

Johnson will have two years to contribute to that effort, and he already has a plan in mind when his collegiate career is complete.

“Hopefully it is in God’s will that I will get drafted, but if not I am thinking about getting my master’s degree in physical therapy and possibly becoming a physical therapist,” he says.  “That was something I knew I wanted to do when I was younger, my dad always talked about it.  After doing more research on it, reading about it and watching — at my high school we actually had a med tech program where we were able to go to the hospital and shadow nurses — my favorite department was the physical therapy department, I knew that’s what I wanted to do.”

But first there is the goal of helping alter the recent path of the South Alabama football program.  And it all comes back to the first word frequently used in association with Gi’Narious Johnson.

“We talk all the time about how big men lead the way, I’ve heard that for years as a coaching cliché, but it so evident when a player up front is a leader by the example that Gi’Narious sets in his work ethic every single day,” Wommack observes.  “It is so evident with our defensive line right now, and ‘G’ is a perfect example of what we are looking for — someone with a relentless work ethic who goes about his business every single day regardless of adversity or success.

“If we have more guys who can continue to do that, this program is going to go very, very far.”

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