When UCLA safety Alex Johnson suits up on game day, he knows that he will see the game from a different perspective than many of his teammates, both literally and figuratively.
Johnson, a redshirt junior now in his fourth season as a Bruin, has played sparingly throughout his collegiate career. He plays defense in sub packages for only five to 10 snaps a game. While his role on the defense might be minimal, his impact on the team is not.
Standing on the sideline throughout most of the game gives Johnson a view and an insight into what is occurring that the starters themselves cannot see while tied up with their specific assignments and matchups. As an example, it enables him to pick up on minutiae such as what a quarterback is doing with his hands pre-snap.
“From the sideline you can see a lot more of the game,” Johnson said. “I can look at the whole picture and maybe can give a little tip to somebody coming off the field. I can tell my coach to relay to the other guys something small that could play a big part.”
Johnson does not just use his time on the sideline helping his teammates. He analyzes the action and flow of the game to prepare himself for the moment when his name is called. He believes that keenly observing the game while awaiting his turn makes him a better player when he is on the field.
“I may not get that many opportunities to get on the field on defense,” Johnson said. “I need to be locked into that because that’s my opportunity to show that I can be on the field and those little reps that I’ve earned, I’ve earned the right to be on the field.”
Being on the field was something Johnson never had to think twice about before arriving in Westwood. But once he set foot on campus, he had to adapt to a new reality.
“Even before high school, I was always the guy (in all sports),” Johnson said. “And then I came here, and it was a humbling process for me. I think it allowed me to grow as a person because I wasn’t in that role the whole time I was here. I had to really earn and work to show people that I did have the skills to be on the field and perform.”
One way Johnson has been able to get onto the field is through the special teams unit. His speed is an asset on both coverage and returns on kickoffs and punts. Playing special teams is an experience uniquely different than that of playing offense or defense, and it appeals to him.
“It allows you to be locked into the game on a different side than offense and defense,” Johnson said. “It gives you and edge to go a little bit harder. It’s a blend of the whole team, so I think the guys that make up that unit are special in their own way and they bring their own kind of edge to the game.”
Johnson’s contributions have not gone unnoticed by teammates and coaches. Before the season began, the team announced that he would have his number changed to 36.
Every year, the Bruins honor a walk-on by changing his number to 36, which was once worn by Nick Pasquale. Pasquale was a walk-on receiver at UCLA who was popular with teammates when his life was tragically cut short in 2013. The number is given to a player who embodies the traits Pasquale was known for: determination, passion for the game, and being a great teammate.
The honor of receiving number 36 was followed up soon afterward by another significant moment for Johnson. He and several other walk-ons learned just before the season began that they were being awarded scholarships.
“Earning a scholarship was really special to me,” Johnson said. “I kind of blacked out in that moment. It was surreal (coming on the heels of receiving No. 36).”
Johnson’s scholarship will be put to good use. He was named to the Athletic Director’s Honor Roll six times on his way to graduating recently with a degree in political science and a minor in history.
Academics are “more than half of the reason that I came to this university,” Johnson said. “One of the things coming here my mom told me that football is great, but you came here to get your degree and the degree is something that lasts with you after football is over. That’s something nobody can ever take away from you.”
Johnson is now working on a master’s degree in coaching and transformative leadership. He chose a new field of study for his graduate work because it dovetails nicely with his future plans.
“I have aspirations to coach later down the line,” Johnson said. “Just learn the process of being a good leader, what it takes, the different aspects of the little intricate roles, and what it means to be a good leader on and off the field here at UCLA and then beyond college sports and athletics.”
Johnson believes that the path to achieving his goal of coaching at the collegiate level could first take him full circle and back to the roots of his aspirations.
“My dream for coaching actually spawned from wanting to go back to my high school (Loyola High in Downtown LA) and coach those kids and maybe do a little teaching on the side,” Johnson said. “I’m big on giving back to the community, and I feel like coaching is a great way of giving back and also furthering the youth from an educational standpoint.”