May 30, 2024
Brett Johnson missed the Bears' last two seasons with a hip injury suffered in a car crash and an ACL tear suffered in training camp.

BERKELEY — By the close of training camp, college football players are itching to take the field in an actual game. It can feel like forever since the last one.

Few players in the country have had a longer wait than Cal defensive lineman Brett Johnson.

“It’s been a long time,” he said this week.

In fact, when the Bears open their season on Sept. 2 at North Texas, it will have been 1,001 days since Johnson played in a game. He missed the entire 2021 season after fracturing his hip in a car accident that spring, and when he tore his ACL during camp a year ago, his 2022 season also was scrubbed.

Named a third-team freshman All-American by Pro Football Focus way back in 2019, Johnson hasn’t faced an opponent since Dec. 5, 2020, when the Bears closed out their COVID-shortened season with a 21-17 win over Oregon.

Asked if he can even remember that day, Johnson said, “Of course. That was a great game.”

Football folks also have a long memory as evidenced by the fact that Johnson was named Wednesday to the preseason watch list for the Senior Bowl all-star game, a remarkable compliment to a player who has missed the past two seasons.

Johnson said he will “absolutely” be ready for North Texas, but doesn’t spend a lot of time getting worked up over it. Maybe because he’s been down this road twice before, Johnson is taking things as they come.

“It’s been a while since I’ve had that feeling, but I don’t think it’ll feel any different than it did before,” he said. “I try not to get in my head too much about it, try to keep my cool but I am looking forward to it.”

The 6-foot-4, 295-pounder is also curious to see where he is in his return. He’s smart enough to accept he may not be at midseason form on Day 1, not after such a long layoff.

“We’ll have to see when I step out there but I have full confidence in my abilities to play well,” Johnson said. “At this point, it’s just getting my experience back. It’s been a while since I’ve played, so it’s building my technique, build my fundamentals.”

Senior safety Craig Woodson said Johnson’s teammates have been excited to see him at practice again.

“He can definitely be a big difference, just stopping the run and pushing those linemen back,” Woodson said “It’s going to be a really big addition to us, having him back.”

Cal’s coaches and medical and training staff have taken a cautious approach to Johnson’s latest comeback. He was basically held out of spring practice but has seen his activity ramp up through three weeks of fall camp.

“We’re bringing Brett back at his tolerance,” defensive coordinator Peter Sirmon said. “We know he can be a big addition for us so every day we take an assessment of how he’s doing and what the practice schedule looks like. Not only that day, but what does the next day look like.”

Johnson said he was anxious early in the process that he couldn’t get on the field more quickly. No more.

“At one point I was frustrated by it but I know that it’s best for me to make sure I feel good when it’s time to feel good,” he said.

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Johnson also shifted to a “super-clean” diet beginning last January, determined to do all he could to be his best. He said the payoff has been noticeable.

“I’ve felt amazing this whole time,” he said. “With camp and all the hard work, sometimes I’ll be sore — the same aches and pains as everyone else. But in terms of just general overall health, I feel probably the best I’ve ever felt in my life.”

Woodson has been impressed that Johnson fought back without ever feeling sorry for himself.

“He’s a guy who just wants to get out there and play and he’s done everything in his will to get on this field,” Woodson said. “Now that he’s back and healthy and has the great mindset that he does, I’m excited for him. A lot of people couldn’t do that — that’s mental toughness.”

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