Saturday 2 September 2023

Sophomore Johnson becomes cornerstone of Hilltops O-line

Left tackle works like he still needs to earn spot

Davin Johnson (#71) sets up a block for an outside run play.
The Saskatoon Hilltops blindside protector on the offensive line doesn’t believe he has done enough to earn any extra attention.

When Davin Johnson was approached about doing an interview for a feature story on himself, he gave the “who me” look.

The 19-year-old Hilltops sophomore then said he hadn’t done anything special. The words downplayed the fact he became a starter at right tackle last season in the team’s sixth game. Playing alongside four other starters in their respective final campaigns of CJFL eligibility, Johnson held the right tackle starting spot for the rest of the season and won the Hilltops team award for rookie of the year.

This season, Johnson is the starter at left tackle on a Hilltops offensive line that had to be revamped due to graduations that occurred at the end of the 2022 campaign. Along with Johnson, right guard Victoire Bikulo is the only other current player that had previous experience starting experience with the Hilltops offensive line entering 2023.

The work of Johnson, Bikulo, left guard Erik Barsness, centre Matt Noble and right tackle Cody Shumanski have allowed the Hilltops to get out to a 3-0 start. With all the teams in the CJFL’s Prairie Football Conference having a bye this weekend, the Hilltops get back at it on Saturday, September 9 when they travel to Regina to face the 3-0 Thunder (7 p.m., Mosaic Stadium) in a heavyweight tilt.

Johnson said one of the things he likes most about playing offensive line is it seems the guys in that position always seem to form their own brotherhood. He believes that has helped the Hilltops offensive line in the early part of the campaign.

“We’re so close, because we need to be so close to have a perfect play,” said Johnson. “We’re very close with all of our guys, and it is great to be close with everybody.”

Still, the graduate of Walter Murray Collegiate Marauders football still gets surprised when any individual accolades or attention comes his way. Being named the rookie of the year for the Hilltops last season was something Johnson was not expecting.

Davin Johnson, right, has started at left tackle this season.
“I was a bit surprised, because (running back) Charles (Sawi) was the rookie of the year for the CJFL,” said Johnson, who stands 6-foot-2 and weighs 275 pounds. “I didn’t expect it.

“I thought Charles might have got it. I guess ‘Sarge’ liked what he saw. I guess that I improved.

“I was just surprised.”

Johnson grew up playing hockey for most of his years in his youth growing up. From those hockey roots, he is still closely follows the exploits of the WHL’s Saskatoon Blades.

He took up football playing in Saskatoon Minor Football’s North Sask Academy in Grade 8 after being encouraged to try the sport by one of his junior high teachers in Dan Houle, who is a running backs coach with the University of Saskatchewan Huskies Football team in the U Sports ranks.

At Walter Murray Collegiate, Johnson learned more about playing his position from Marauders offensive line coach Jack Sloboda. Sloboda was the starting right guard on the Hilltops 2016 CJFL championship team and starting left guard on their 2017 CJFL title winner.

During his high school years, Johnson also caught the attention of legendary Hilltops head coach Tom Sargeant, who is also the principal at Walter Murray.

“He (Sargeant) had a bit of an early read,” said Johnson. “I remember he pulled me out of a class to come talk to me about football.

“My O-line coach (Sloboda) was also a Hilltop. He really recommended to come to this program with how well all the coaching is. That is what led me here.”

As an 18-year-old rookie last season, Johnson said it was an eye-opener, when he first started to train with the Hilltops. He remembers that he got pushed around quite a bit early in training camp in 2022.

Davin Johnson claimed the Hilltops team rookie of the year award in 2022.
With that experience, Johnson got acclimatized to the CJFL game quickly. He made his first start with the Hilltops in a 35-17 win over the Colts in Calgary on September 25, 2022.

“I was just a little bit more confident with myself,” said Johnson. “It was still not to what I needed to be, but I just got a little bit more confident and just kind of got thrown in that Calgary game.

“I played good enough where ‘Sarge’ didn’t notice me, and then he had confidence in me from then on.”

Johnson said the starting players on the offensive line who were in their final campaigns of CJFL eligibility in 2022 in centre Luciano Jolly, left tackle Jayson Kehler, left guard Jordan Bisson and right guard Ethan Paslowski were huge in helping him out.

“All the fifth years were amazing, because they would coach me up,” said Johnson. “It was like we had five or six different coaches on the field.

“They’d always have their little tips that they would give to help you get better.”

With the graduations of Jolly, Kehler, Bisson and Paslowski, Johnson said things were challenging on the Hilltops offensive line heading into the 2023 campaign.

“The winter practices were a little rough,” said Johnson. “We had guys getting through.

Davin Johnson (#71) and a revamped O-line helped get the Hilltops to 3-0.
“Even into camp, we had guys getting through. We had linebackers that we didn’t pick up. We’ve gotten better.

“As we’ve started to come together we are definitely looking pretty good now. We were a little worried at the start.”

Johnson welcomed being moved from right tackle to left tackle heading into the 2023 season. He played left tackle all through his North Sask Academy and high school days, so he has a lot of comfort taking up that spot on the offensive line.

On top of being comfortable at left tackle, Johnson has found that the Hilltops have done a little better job of focusing in on the present this year compared to last year. He believes that his likely due to the fact a little more time has passed since the Hilltops last won the CJFL title back in 2019 on top of the fact the team is more youthful than it has been in the past.

“This year we are definitely more focused on getting better every day knowing that we have to work harder to try and get to that national championship spot,” said Johnson. “Last year, we kind of had the idea that we were already going to be there.

“In our winter practices, ‘Sarge’ would say he thought of us as like we could be a national championship team. Whereas this year it was you guys aren’t good enough. We are going to work harder and maybe we can get to that national championship.

“It is just more focusing on the everyday trying to get better and just see how far we can go with it.”

Looking forward to the rest of the 2023 campaign, Johnson has more modest outlooks.

Davin Johnson and the Hilltops are truly focused on the present.
“I hope that we become one of the best blocking O-lines in the league,” said Johnson. “I hope we can all work together really well and have fun.”

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