Penn State's Austin Johnson makes case for keeping it simple

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — For some people, football just isn’t all that difficult.

There is film study and the memorization of so many formations it has to feel like you’re Neo in “The Matrix” seeing all the neon-colored digits zigging and zagging through your blue-pill-consuming mind, but defensive tackle Austin Johnson still boils his job down to running and trying to break through the offensive lineman blocking him.

“If you take off and play fast, everything will work out,” Johnson said.

And Penn State is counting on everything to work out for Johnson. He’s a redshirt sophomore assuming a starting role for the first time while getting noticed plenty by his coach, James Franklin.

“He’s just so big and athletic and has got a great motor and is difficult to deal with,” Franklin said.

Johnson and Anthony Zettel have taken over a position that in recent years for Penn State has featured NFL talents such as Devon Still, Jordan Hill and DaQuan Jones. Hill and Jones were instrumental in Johnson’s development.

They were the senior-most defensive tackles on the team his freshman year. Back then, he admits to overthinking a little too much, focusing on the Matrix-esque formations and numbers flying through his head.

“In college, there are things you can’t do,” he said. “And thinking is one of those things, because you’re going to be out of your gap and out of your play if you overthink.”

Hill and Jones told him not to overthink, and they told him to use his hands to get by those offensive linemen.

Last season, when he saw his first playing time, Johnson had 27 tackles, including three for a loss and a sack. He started two games, but mainly backed up Jones and Kyle Baublitz.

Last spring and throughout summer camp, he was one of the most talked about players. He illustrated why in Penn State’s first game against Central Florida. Johnson finished with three tackles and 0.5 tackles for loss.

“He’s like the center of our defense,” cornerback Jordan Lucas said. “He’s right there in the middle of everything. He gets double-teamed all the time and accepts that challenge. … When you’re watching film, you always see 99 show up, no matter if it’s down the field or if he’s making a play on the running back.”

Part of ensuring success for Johnson — and Zettel — will be keeping them energetic and not overplaying them. Both players competed on nearly every snap Saturday. Franklin said to expect more playing time for Tarow Barney and Parker Cothren in backup roles.

Not that Johnson necessarily needs the extra rest. Like his outlook on strategy, he tries not to overthink energy.

“It’s just all mental,” he said. “If you think you’re tired, you’re going to be tired.”

•NOTE — Penn State announced it will play Army Oct. 3 next year at Beaver Stadium, completing its 2015 schedule. It will be the 26th time the teams have played. Penn State last played Army in 1979, winning, 24-3. The other non-conference opponents will be Temple (away), Buffalo and San Diego State.

Mark Dent:, 412-439-3791 and Twitter @mdent05.

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