NFL Draft

Zion Johnson Interview: ‘I Grew Up A Big Pittsburgh Steelers Fan’

During the media breakfast Wednesday morning, I had the opportunity to speak with Boston College OL Zion Johnson for several minutes. He had a great engaging presence and spoke with enthusiasm. He was more soft-spoken but had a lot of thoughtful insight on the Senior Bowl, the pre-draft process with fellow teammate and Shrine Bowl OL Alec Lindstrom, as well as a potential connection with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

JH: How’s it going? Tell me a little bit about your teammate Alec, who is now at the Shrine Bowl like have you guys been texting back and forth about his performance how things are going on down there? You’ve been talking about things here? How you guys been supporting each other while obviously playing right next to the line of scrimmage and what do you think he brings to the game in terms of a professional based off your assessment of his game?

ZJ: Absolutely. He thinks it’s funny that I’m playing center right now. Yeah, we talk all the time. We actually live together at Boston College. You know, you have a good relationship. He’s a tough guy. He’s outspoken. He’s not afraid to talk it out. You know, he’s a guy that is reliable. Like I say all the time. It’s not the biggest guy, not the strongest guy or has the longest arms or anything like that. But he’s a guy who is gritty. He’s someone who’s gonna fight throughout a play and he said on a ball rush, if you look in his face, you could see him straining out of his being it’s sitting on that guy, but you know, Alec is a great guy to be around.

JH: You think that he was able to take a lot from his brother Chris (Lindstrom), obviously going on to the NFL and you think that how this Chris kind of in you’ve already talked about how he’s like instilled in you? Has he been able to instill into that unit after he’s moved on? And just like how do you think that Alec will transition to the pros, much like his brother first has?

ZJ: Chris was a really great guard and when I came into that Adagio system, you know, I watched a lot of his tape, you know, the team the previous year. Of course, it was a very important as an offensive line really. Coach, would say, “Guys, I talk about that all the time. When you say we lost an animal we need to find a new one.” So, you know, for guys like me and John Phillips, who were on at line, that was one of our goals was to, you know, be in that same light to play as well as he did.

ZJ: But in terms of Alec, you know, Alec is a very competitive guy. And he’s a guy that I don’t think likes to be compared to each brother. But you know, they have that competition there where he’s like, his big brother Chris has a big board up in our indoor training facility. And he’s the guy who will look up on that board. And yeah, there’s that sense of him being proud like, That’s my brother, but it’s also like, I want to be better my brother, I’m the younger brother. So yeah, I gotta I gotta get there too. And, you know, Alec, you know, he has that, that that fight and that toughness in him, you know, that’s gonna continue to be his thing and the next level.

JH: So, your success on the golf course has been well documented. Have you been golfing recently? What can you shoot now and just tell a little bit about that?

ZJ: I don’t golf often at all when I went out during the summer in our shot somewhere in the 90s. I’m not nearly as good as I used to be. But you know, it was good to get back out on the course you know, a little bit more stiff upper body-wise. Yeah, I gained more weight and am more top heavy.

JH: Do you think that golf helps you in any facet, whether it be physical or mental in terms of just the transition? Like do you see any transition between the sports?

ZJ: Golf? I mean, when I think about it, so people don’t think it’s very competitive. It’s a very competitive sport. Yes. It’s very competitive sport, and it can be very frustrating, you know, some days he’s not day. You know you are slicing everything or when your short game’s not right. But, you know, some days you’re wrong and you know, it takes a good amount of patience to be able to stick with it. And I think you know, football was a struggle for me at first to realize that I was undersized, you know, I struggled a lot learning the offense. You know, having that experience of doing something that you know, you would have off-and-on days, it was pretty similar to football.

JH: Absolutely. So, you kind of talked about the ups and downs that you have with golf. You had a good first day of practice, so tell me a little bit about one or two things playing guard and center that you really took pride in going back on that first day that you can look back on and say I made a very good first impression. And then one thing that you’re going to be looking back on film or that scouts are going to be pulling up on film when they talk to you at the combine. And one thing was like okay, this is something that I know that I can continue to improve to show myself that I am capable of doing this at the next level.

ZJ: It felt great to be back out there you know, having not been out there for two months. I felt great being able to the run wide zone again, something that we’ve done a lot in the Boston College offense. You know, I felt like I was on top of the IDs, you know, someone who hasn’t played center a lot of you know. I really pride myself, you know, being able to anchor the pass protection, and that’s something I think that I showcased yesterday.

ZJ: You know, I think it’s something I could definitely work on and it’s just the technique that they’re coaching us. We all come from different offenses that have been coached different ways than like in our offense, we set an angle step on the wide zone, which you know, if you have a wider guy, you might lose some ground, but the scouting staffs are really big on gaining ground towards your target. And that’s something that you know, I’ve been working on trying to get better at each day.

JH: Absolutely. So, I cover the Pittsburgh Steelers and I was wondering if you have had any conversations with any one of the coaches or anyone on that staff or if you’ve talked to possibly anyone in the AFC North that are looking for offensive linemen. Obviously, the Cincinnati Bengals are talking about needing offensive linemen and they in the Super Bowl or the Ravens looking to replace people. Have you talked to any teams or anyone from Pittsburgh?

ZJ: That’s funny because Mike Tomlin was here and I talked about it’s like, “Oh my gosh, it’s Mike Tomlin!” You don’t know this, but I grew up a big Steelers fan growing up. Weird coming from Maryland, but you know, I’ve always watched the Steelers growing up. But yeah, I had the opportunity to talk to some of their scouts and the coaching staff that are here. And you know, like I said, Coach Mike Tomlin was here. His son is a BC guy now. But it was a great opportunity for him to get to talk to the team and talk to him a little bit about my journey, talk X’s and O’s and have that communication.

JH: So, you talk a little bit about being a Steelers fan. When did you kind of first start your fandom of like recognizing the team and what kind of stuck out with Coach Tomlin as a coach and also just the culture of Steeler Nation and also Pittsburgh, that’s kind of stood out and resonated with you?

ZJ: Well, I was about seven you know? My mother’s side is Cowboys fans. My dad’s side is all Washington Football Team fans so I was really placed in the middle where I’m like, dang, like I can’t like choose. So, I have some family from the area. And you know, obviously I’m impressed with them as kid and loved those Bumblebee uniforms as a kid and Transformers was a big thing so, you know, that was really, you know, as a young kid made me love the team.

ZJ: But Coach Tomlin’s been there for a very long time. I think the Steelers have had three head coaches in there since 1969. Yeah, since 1969. Which is saying it shows they have a history of success that the team has had. You know Coach Mike Tomlin is an awesome guy. He’s a guy that whenever I hear him talking, he introduced press conferences, that he’s a guy that you listen to, because he speaks with authority. He’s great. He’s a great coach.

JH: So, one last question. When you are going this this process, obviously in the Senior Bowl and Mobile and then you’re going to be going to the NFL Combine. Tell me a little bit about where you’re working out at right now. Who are you working with positionally? Where are you training at to be able to put up the best numbers the best testing possible as well as be able to demonstrate the best improvement in technique depending on what position you have to play? At guard, center, whatever it may be at the Combine. Tell a little bit more about your offseason training.

ZJ: I’ve been training at Exos in Pensacola. I’m working with Josh Sitton down there who played guard for Packers and Bears for a long time. I think he’s been a great asset to working with a great guy who had great success in the league, and he’s really been helping us to kind of build our game from the ground up just working fundamentals. Now we’ve been doing some of the Combine drills but mostly working hand placement, you know, making sure that you’re refitting as quick as you can. He’s just teaching the leverage from different angles for run game and footwork. It’s been interesting to have so many different coaches and Coach Sit teaches us things a little differently than some of the coaches I’ve had. It’s great to pick things from his brain and things that worked for him.

JH: I appreciate your time, man.

ZJ: Thanks man.

Walking away from the interview with Johnson, a few things stood out. First, Johnson couldn’t stop talking about his respect for Mike Tomlin as a coach and the relationship they have prior to the draft, given that they have spoken at Boston College when Tomlin’s son, Dino, transferred from Maryland to play there. He reveres Tomlin as a coach as well as a man as recognized what an opportunity it would be to play for a coach like him.

Second, when we are trying to play the “Blue’s Clues” Tomlin has had connections with Johnson for some time now and Johnson said he has spoken to a majority of the coaching staff and scouts while down here. Given that he has played at a Power Five school and has played guard and tackle in college as well as taken snaps at center here in Mobile, he has been showing off his ability to be position versatile at the next level. From a positional need standpoint, a pedigree standpoint as a standout at BC, and from a character “hearts and smarts” standpoint, Johnson is checking a lot of boxes.

I thoroughly enjoyed my conversation with Johnson and while I was teetering with him as more of a Day Two guy, I genuinely think he is in-play for Pittsburgh at #20. Outside of center Tyler Linderbaum and guard Kenyon Green, Zion Johnson is likely the next highest graded interior offensive lineman that has been steadier as a player than Green as a prospect from the tape I have watched on both. Continuing to impress at center and guard while here in Mobile will only help boost his draft stock heading to the Combine where he will undoubtedly ace the interviews.

Offensive line may not be the sexy pick, but Zion Johnson sold me on potentially being the guy Pittsburgh selects in the first round. Frankly, I think he would be more joyful for that outcome than I would.

What are your thoughts on Zion Johnson? What do you think of his interview? Is he squarely in-play for Pittsburgh in the first round, or do you think he’s more of a Day Two option? What do you think of him being a childhood fan of the team? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below and thanks again for reading!

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