'Youllsee' Johnson still opening eyes for Steelers

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Undrafted, unsigned and unwanted, Will Johnson never quite got the hint from the NFL. He was a backup tight end at West Virginia, never caught more than nine passes in a season and ran the 40-yard dash in 4.7 seconds.

That type of resume doesn't make the arena league come calling, much less than NFL.

But Johnson was undeterred. Out of football in the fall of 2011 after his college career ended, Johnson took three jobs to pay the bills. In his spare time, he worked out feverishly in hopes of giving his NFL dream one more shot.

When that shot came, he took full advantage and launched a most unlikely NFL career.

Last spring, Johnson asked West Virginia's coaches if he could come back to work out before NFL teams at the Mountaineers' pro day. He bench pressed 225 pounds 30 times and ran a 4.49 40-yard dash, trimming more than two tenths of a second off his 40 in one year's time.

A few days later, the Steelers signed Johnson and promptly made him a fullback, a position he had never played.

"He got here and no one knew who he was," veteran running back Isaac Redman said. "In the NFL, you kind of have to make that name for yourself. You see this big swole guy. He came in ripped up. But we were all wondering what he could do when he got pads on.

"We called him Youllsee Johnson because coach Kirby [Wilson] talked to him at OTAs and kept saying, 'What are you going to do when you get some pads on?' And Will would say: 'You'll see.' "

The Steelers have seen plenty in the past year to suggest they have found their fullback for years to come. Johnson, who suffered a hamstring injury of unknown severity in the final preseason game Thursday night, begins his second NFL season entrenched as the starting fullback for the Steelers.

At 6 foot 2 and weighing 240 pounds, Johnson can block, run and catch the ball out of the backfield, prerequisites for someone who is playing a position that is close to extinction in the NFL.

Only a handful of teams in the NFL use a fullback as part of their base offense. Many offensive coordinators look down on fullbacks, viewing them as dinosaurs from a previous NFL era.

It appears front offices have a similar outlook. An ESPN study this summer projected place kickers and punters would earn more this season than fullbacks, whose salaries are on par with the lowest earners in the league -- long snappers.

"We're a dying breed," Johnson said.

The Steelers began using a fullback again last season after going without one on their roster for years under former offensive coordinator Bruce Arians. Under Arians, tight end David Johnson lined up as a fullback at times, but he was never in the running backs' meetings and played the position on a part-time basis.

The Steelers like having a fullback in their offense. They would like to get back to running the ball more effectively and believe the new zone blocking scheme and the use of a full-time fullback can help improve a running game that has struggled in recent years.

But the Steelers are not part of a league-wide trend. The majority of NFL teams continue to operate on offense by spreading the field and relying on their franchise quarterbacks more than the running game.

"The more you are involved, the more inclined you are to spread out a defense and take your chances, so I don't know if it will come back," Wilson said. "But football is forever changing. And sometimes you change so much it comes back to the beginning. I hope it does because it gives more average guys an opportunity to play football."

How much more average can you get than Johnson? He worked at a shipping warehouse and did landscaping work to make ends meet in his year out of the game.

Players of average ability must possess football traits beyond the speed and size that teams covet. Johnson showed those intangibles immediately in his rookie training camp last summer.

"He ran into Lawrence Timmons in the hole, kind of got knocked out," Redman said. "That was his welcome to the NFL moment. But we saw he wasn't scared to stick his face in there."

Wilson described his version of the perfect modern-day fullback: "You need to have guys who are athletic and who aren't just straight-lined players anymore," Wilson said. "It also helps when you have a guy who has the ability to catch passes out of the backfield, not only horizontally but vertically. They have to be smart. But an ideal guy, he has to have fullback demeanor. He plays with aggression and has an appetite for violence.

"You're always looking for a guy who has those combinations. Potentially, they could be a special player. A lot of times, more often than not, they're lacking in one of those areas. We think we have a good young one who will continually develop. He's not nearly the player he will be someday, but he's off to a good start."

The edge to Johnson's game was developed due to the previous snubs by the NFL. It's why he never once felt like his job was safe this summer even though the Steelers had him penciled in as their starter all along.

"It's definitely been a long journey," he said. "I'm blessed with this opportunity. For me, it's about not being complacent. I try to set new goals and become better so I can stick around in this offense because I know every day there is someone trying to take my spot.

"There are guys on this team who can play fullback. My coach reminds me of it every day. The standard is the standard. I have to set the bar high and produce."


Ray Fittipaldo: rfititpaldo@post-gazette.com and Twitter @rayfitt1.


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