In an offense loaded with studs like All-Pros Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell and led by the NFL’s passing yards leader in franchise cornerstone Ben Roethlisberger, there is one man in the starting lineup that is about as obscure as you’ll find. Whether it’s because of the position he plays, the stars around him or both, fullback Will Johnson is more often than not lost in the shuffle around him.
It doesn’t hurt that, arguably other than occupying blocks on a 3-4 defensive line, he plays the fullback position, which is about as devalued a position as you’ll find around the league. For instance, in the Pittsburgh Steelers 37-19 pounding of the Carolina Panthers last season, the team as a whole rushed for 264 yards, led by Bell and ex-Steeler, LeGarrette Blount, who both topped the century mark in rushing yards, the first time a Steelers’ tandem has done so in 28 years. That game was in week 3, and coincidentally, his snaps in this game alone were more than double weeks 1 and 2 combined.
Coming out of West Virginia undrafted, it’s a bit of a story in itself that Johnson is here several years later as a starter on one of, if not, the league’s best offenses. He wasn’t invited to the combine after his senior year in 2011, simply because in a league where the smash mouth, three yards and a cloud of dust was going stagnant, teams didn’t place the same value on fullbacks as they did 20 or 30 years ago.
After going undrafted, Johnson kept in shape though, continuing to work out and keep his body in peak physical condition in hopes that his NFL dreams would come true. They did come true, as he was in the right place at the right time come WVU’s Pro Day in 2012, where he showed up in superior shape to some of the more well-known Mountaineer prospects. He didn’t disappoint, as he caught the eye of the Steelers and head coach Mike Tomlin and GM Kevin Colbert.
“Johnson ran crisp routes, showed terrific footwork and blew away the competition on the bench press, pumping 225 pounds for 30 reps,” said Geoff Coyle of WVillustrated.
His 30 reps were the most anyone put up at the pro day, and this includes some much larger offensive linemen. When he was finished with the workout, he wasn’t a hard man to find for the Steelers’ brass.
“When I got done running my routes, I was over there talking to Tomlin and he wanted me to keep it a secret so the other teams didn’t know,” Johnson said, according to Coyle.
One agent in attendance even reportedly had the 6-foot-2, 238-pounder running a 4.49 in the 40.
“They said they liked what I did, they liked how I look and they wanted to bring me up and sign me,” he said.
After working three jobs to sustain himself in the year off from football, he took up Crossfit and attributes it to his landing of a job with his current employer, the Pittsburgh Steelers.
“I recommend that to anyone and everybody,” he said, according to Coyle. “It definitely helped my body and you can tell. I only weigh one pound heavier than I did last year, but I look a lot bigger. I weighed in at 242 and last year I wasn’t nearly as strong as I am this year.”
Nowadays, he is perhaps the most unsung of heroes for a Pittsburgh offense looking to set the bar even higher in 2015. Perhaps in the absence of Bell’s suspension, Johnson can entice offensive coordinator Todd Haley to throw him a bone out of the backfield more often than the handful of times he did last season.