September 12, 2018

Thriving in Trial By Fire last Fall for PU Football, Johnson Emerges as Star Linebacker, Co-Captain

NO DOUBTING THOMAS: Princeton University football captains, from left, Thomas Johnson, John Lovett, Mark Fossati, and Kurt Holuba are all smiles as they posed together at the program’s media day. While Lovett, Fossati, and Holuba were all sidelined by injuries last fall, Johnson emerged as a defensive force, earning first-team All-Ivy League honors at inside linebacker after ranking third in the league with 95 tackles. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Bill Alden

Thomas Johnson faced a trial by fire last fall in his junior season for the Princeton University football team.

First, Johnson was moved to a new spot on the field, getting switched to inside linebacker from the outside.

“It was definitely tough, I had never played inside really a lot in my career and it is a little bit different coming from the outside,” said Johnson, a 6’0, 225-pound native of Moorestown, N.J.  “I love the challenge of learning the new position; it is like relearning the game.”

As the 2017 season unfolded and the Princeton defense was hit with a rash of injures as the Tigers lost their last four games after starting 5-1, Johnson was faced with the challenge of taking a lead role on the defense.

“I wasn’t necessarily really experienced, but we had a lot of guys who weren’t experienced that had to step up,” said Johnson.

“I think it was good for me to be in this spot; it made me try to learn fast, not that I wasn’t pressing the issue from the start.”

Learning those lessons well, Johnson earned first-team All-Ivy League honors at inside linebacker after ranking third in the league with 95 tackles. His leadership ability was recognized as he was voted to serve as one of the captains of the 2018 team along with fellow seniors Kurt Holuba, Mark Fossati, and John Lovett.

“It is such an honor, knowing the history of the spot, but at the end of the day, it doesn’t change my mentality a whole lot,” said Johnson, reflecting on being named captain. “I try to put my best out there everyday and I try to work harder than anyone else. There are so many guys that are pushing you every day.”

One of the guys who is being led by Johnson is his younger brother, sophomore linebacker James Johnson.

“We had the chance to play together a little bit in high school but because of injuries it was a little thrown off,” said Johnson.

“Having him in the room and being able to see him work has been great. I am so proud of the way that he came in last year. You look at his freshman year and he blew me out of the water. I am excited to see where he can take his time here.”

With the Princeton defense having struggled down the stretch last season, ending up yielding 26.5 points and 407 yards a game, Johnson sees the unit tightening up this fall.

“We have so much to work on. We know the challenges we faced last year but this is a new year and everyone is  a little more experienced and a little hungrier and we are carrying that everyday,” said Johnson.

“I think we are communicating well and we are practicing hard; those are the two things that are the most important for us right now.”

Princeton defensive coordinator and senior associate head coach Steve Verbit sees Johnson as a very important piece for the Tigers.

“Tommy is that energizer bunny; you just wind him up, you send him out on the football field and he is go, go, go,” said Verbit.

“He is 100 mph all the time. He is a good leader and a good team player. His expectation for everybody else is to follow his lead, run to the ball and be the best you can be. He is fantastic to have as part of your defense.”

For Johnson, working with Fossati, who is returning from injury, is going to be a huge plus.

“My balance is always been huge for me,” said Johnson. “It is also recognition. The more time I spend in the inside, the faster I am seeing things. With Mark back next to me, it is great to be able to grow together again. I am grateful for the chance to be better and more comfortable and have a chance to play next to him again. It is a really good thing for me.”

With Princeton preparing to face Butler (2-0) this Saturday in its season opener, Johnson and his teammates are looking to get better everyday.

“We are focused on coming together and growing,” said Johnson.

“We are focused on hammering out the details and being the best version of ourself. Hopefully that will sort itself out in our favor, but our focus right now is being the best team we can be.”