Program Spotlight: Clem Johnson
By Brian Reinhardt, NC State Media Relations
Clem Johnson’s path to becoming one of the starters at safety for the Wolfpack defense has not been an easy road. After a detour and then injury, Johnson has had to use patience and discipline to get to where he is today.
Johnson came to the Pack last season after spending two years at Valley Forge Military College. He did not have the grades coming out of high school, so he was forced to think about alternatives to playing major college football.
Gone were his days of hanging out after high school with friends, and being a Division I college football freshman. Those times were replaced by early wakeup calls, and a structured day that had every minute accounted for.
“The discipline part of Valley Forge was what I needed at that time,” said Johnson. “I figured that I had to take the junior college route, and I wanted to go to a place that was good for me both on and off the field.
“The military structure was something that I needed at that time, and I’m just thankful I realized that because that experience helped shape me into who I am today. I needed the discipline aspect at Valley Forge, and when you go there you have no choice but to adapt to that style. For me, that is what I needed.”
While Johnson admits his time at Valley Forge was tough, he calls it a wakeup call and the best place for him to be right after high school.
“I think being at a military school taught me about patience and taking my time and doing things the right way,” said Johnson. “I definitely learned how to work hard in my two years there. Learning how to be on time for everything, waking up early in the morning, and the intense pressure of the whole situation.
“I matured a lot there, and that is what I needed coming out of high school and moving onto that next phase in life. That is one thing that I got out of Valley Forge, just maturing and growing up away from home and being on my own.”
Johnson matured at Valley and gained the experience he needed to adjust to life away from home. But on the field, Johnson was developing at another position, different from where Wolfpack fans see him lining up today.
“Going into junior college I still had that quarterback dream,” said Johnson. “It kind of took me into my second year, and then I realized that the defensive side of the ball was my best opportunity to keep playing football.
“My main position was quarterback at Valley Forge, but towards the end of my second season there I started to play more and more on the defensive side of the ball.”
Before the change of positions, Johnson was named the Seaboard Conference Offensive Player of the Year both of his seasons at Valley Forge, but his prior experience at free safety in his school gave him a feel for where he was best suited on the football field.
“I like to hit people,” said Johnson. “All my life I was the one getting hit when I was playing quarterback, so it was nice to reverse those roles for a change. I think I have that natural ability to look into the opponent’s backfield, read the play, and react to what they are doing.”
Johnson came to the Pack last summer, and was right away thrown into the mix at free safety in preseason camp. He was slated as the starter at free safety heading into the season, but ended up missing the first four contests after suffering a broken jaw late in preseason drills.
“It was tough mentally because I was so anxious, even coming out of high school, to get to the limelight,” said Johnson. “I felt like I had the ability to be a great athlete on the college level, and to take the junior college route kind of put a hold on that dream for two years.
“Then when I finally came to a major college and the situation was looking very promising, I got injured. I wasn’t sure how long I would be out, or if I would even have to miss the entire season. I had the opportunity to come back midway through the season, and finally get that opportunity that I had been waited for since high school.”
Johnson returned to action for the South Florida game in late September, and ended up starting three straight contests (all Wolfpack wins) towards the end of the season before an ankle injury sidelined him for the home finale against Miami.
“I think I bounced back faster than everybody expected,” said Johnson. “I did lose some weight, but not too much where it limited me in being as physical as I like to play.
“Once I was able to start to eat again, I was able to get that weight back pretty quickly and then it was just me getting back into that football shape. There was opportunity for me in the secondary, so the coaches felt that when I could come back they were going to stick me right back in there.”
For his senior season, Johnson’s goals are simple.
“I just really want to stay healthy throughout the season,” said Johnson. “I think I have the opportunity to make plays and help improve this team as long as I’m on the field. I want to stand out both as a tackler and somebody that is strong in pass coverage. Weather I come up and make that big hit to cause a fumble, or intercept a pass, my job is to try to cause turnovers so our offense can get back out onto the field.”
Coming into the 2009 campaign, Johnson knew he would be a big part as to weather or not the Pack’s secondary would be successful.
“I really worked on just having a better understanding of this defense,” said Johnson. “Not only where I’m suppose to be and what I’m suppose to be doing, but I made an effort to learn what everybody else is suppose to be doing. If I know what everybody else is doing that helps me do my job a whole lot better from the safety position. “
Johnson will earn his degree in sociology in May, and right now it is hard for him to think about what lays ahead for him after his playing days at NC State are over.
“It is really hard to think about the future right now, I’m so focused on this season and making it the best it possible can be, both for myself and for this team,” said Johnson. “This might be my last go around in football, and there is nothing more that I want then to be successful, and to help this team achieve the best possible results.”