Lucas Johnson has played sporadically along the offensive line during his first three years at Georgia State. He's hoping that will change this fall.
The 2014 Cass High graduate saw action in five games his freshman season, which came in 2015 following a grayshirt year, 10 his sophomore year and eight his junior campaign. Part of the problem was Johnson could never find a particular position on the line to truly call his own.
However, last year did see him land his first three starts of his career. The trio of nods came in consecutive wins midway through the year that helped the Panthers become bowl eligible.
Johnson started the first two of those games at right tackle. But it was that third victory, when he slotted in at right guard after preparing all week to play at tackle, that really changed his outlook.
“At first, I was just doing it to help out,” Johnson said of moving around along the line. “I just felt like I couldn’t find a spot that I could call mine. As the season went on and injuries happened, I realized that it didn’t matter what I wanted. I was doing what the team needed, and it worked out. There were games where I was game planned to play tackle, then I was thrown in and started at right guard and we ended up winning the game. It feels good to be a part of winning — no matter what your role is.
“I think that’s what a lot of players, whether they’re young or old, have got to realize. It’s not just about you; it’s an 11-man sport. You just have to find your role on the team, and do that the best you can.”
Now, Johnson is set to enter the 2018 season entrenched at the right tackle position — or at least that's the hope.
He will look to help Georgia State reach a bowl game for the third time in his tenure. Last year's squad became the first in Panthers history to win a bowl game, defeating Western Kentucky by a 27-17 score in the AutoNation Cure Bowl.
Even still, Johnson said the season felt like a disappointment, despite it being the first season for head coach Shawn Elliott and most of his staff, which came on board following a 3-9 campaign in 2016.
Following Johnson's third successive start — a win over Texas State — Georgia State sat tied for first in the Sun Belt Conference at 5-1 with two home games to close out the schedule. The Panthers dropped both, scoring just 10 points in each game, and Johnson said it felt like a missed opportunity.
But the team is trying to use the bowl win as a springboard to bigger and better things in the young regime's second season.
“There’s definitely a lot more momentum on our side,” Johnson said. “When we were 3-9, it was like dragging a dead weight, especially when we had new coaches that we were trying to get used to and them get used to us.
“We had a season to familiarize ourselves with the coaches and them with us. We built relationships we didn’t have before last season. I think all those are strengths that will help us and propel us into a better season this year.”
One of the biggest factors in determining success for the Panthers this season, as is the case for most teams at any level, will be quarterback play. With Conner Manning, formerly of Utah, having graduated, there's an ongoing competition for Georgia State signal-caller.
Johnson said the battle doesn't cause too many issues for him and the rest of the offensive line.
“As an offensive lineman, we have to do our job regardless of who is in the pocket,” he said. “It really starts with us up front. We don’t get the credit. but that’s what we signed up for. As long as we keep the guy in the backfield safe, he’s not getting hit [and] we’re scoring touchdowns, I don’t care who’s the quarterback.”
Entering his fourth season, there isn't much Johnson hasn't experienced at the collegiate level. He admitted, though, there was a significant period of adjustment when he left the bubble of Cartersville for Atlanta.
“Definitely coming from Cartersville to Atlanta my freshman year was a big eye-opener,” Johnson said. “Everything is a lot different. When you’re in Cartersville, the only thing you think about is Cartersville. You don’t think about anything else. Once you get out and get into the city, you realize there’s a whole lot more going on in the world."
Some simple things just took some getting used to, such as one-way streets.
“I felt like it took forever to get anywhere I wanted to go,” Johnson said.
Others, required a bit more guidance.
Another former Cass player, Tarris Batiste was one of several older players who helped Johnson when he first arrived on campus. It's clear the impact Batiste and Co. had on Johnson, because it led to a tangible change in his leadership abilities.
“Definitely the upperclassmen helped me get a foot in in Atlanta and showed me the dos and don’ts,” Johnson said. “… Pretty much just big brother stuff.
”I never really thought that I would do that, but over the years, I’ve had a few guys I’ve tried to mentor and show them where I messed up, so they don’t make the same mistakes I did and try to make them better.”
It's also started to prepare him for his desired post-playing career: coaching.
Johnson hasn't settled on a precise path, but he seems fairly certain when he hangs up his cleats, he will be picking up a clipboard ... or possibly a tablet.
“Right now, I’m just trying to weigh my options,” Johnson said. “Stay here and be a graduate assistant to get my foot in the college coaching door and I’ll also get my masters paid for. Or if I want to take the money right out of college and coach. I’ve been in contact with my former [Cass] head coach, Rick Casko, who is now coaching at Seminole Ridge [High School in Loxahatchee, Florida]. I’ve been in contact with him about possible offensive line coaching at his high school.
“I’ll take the time to talk with my family and friends, just get some advice from people on what’s the best thing for me to do and come to the correct decision. … There’s more money in college [coaching], but I feel I can make a bigger difference on people in high school. It’s just one of those things that I’ve got to let God take care of."