HUNTINGTON — When Marshall University’s football team needed to secure depth at the offensive tackle position, assistant coach Alex Mirabal had one player in mind.
That player was Sebastian Johansson, who started at left guard for much of the 2013 season.
Moving from guard to tackle is no easy transition, but Mirabal said he has full confidence that Johansson can do that for the Thundering Herd — especially after seeing him in the first day of spring drills on Tuesday.
“He’s a heck of an athlete and very flexible,” Mirabal said. “The only question was against live bullets, how is he going to respond? He looked great today against (defensive ends Gary) Thompson, (RaShawde) Myers and Ricardo Williams. You didn’t notice that he’s new. After today, I can tell you, he’s not a stop-gap. He’s a real dude on the outside.”
After the practice, Johansson immediately went to Mirabal and talked to him about what he understood and even the times when he didn’t understand.
“It’s just another challenge,” Johansson said with a smile. “You just have to keep going and hopefully it works out for you. It’s just different technique in pretty much every aspect. That’s the main thing. Coach Mirabal is probably going to work my behind.”
At one point, Johansson told Mirabal that he didn’t know if he was running a certain call right, but he was going to line up and drill the guy in front of him as hard as he could.
It’s that tenacity and that hit-somebody attitude Johansson possesses that Mirabal thinks is one of his biggest assets.
“Sebastian has toughness and a tremendous desire to get better,” Mirabal said. “If you have those two things, the game of football is going to reward you.”
For Johansson, the move to tackle is a bit outside of the box after spending last season as the Herd’s left guard, but thinking outside of the box is nothing new for him.
Originally from Karlstad, Sweden, Johansson came to the Tri-State as a foreign exchange student in his junior year of high school and was a standout on the offensive front at Raceland (Ky.) High School, where he played tackle.
After that year at Raceland, he became the first junior to move up to the senior national team for Sweden and competed in the Junior World Championships in Canton, Ohio.
Marshall’s coaching staff kept tabs on the Swedish standout and he joined the Herd in 2011. After being a reserve in 2012, he started every game at left guard for the Herd after impressing Mirabal last spring.
“It goes beyond football,” Mirabal said. “He has a lot of pride as a human being. His story of coming over from Sweden to here — that mindset and mentality is special. Some of these kids get homesick and they are two states away. This kid is thousands of miles away and he never complains. His toughness and his work ethic and pride to get better is amazing.”
Johansson joins Clint Van Horn to give the Herd a pair of juniors who could become dominant at tackle and continue the Herd’s offensive success of the last two years.
Marshall lost three offensive tackles from last year’s team in Garrett Scott, Jordan Jeffries and Gage Niemeyer, meaning that not only will Johansson and Van Horn be looked at to lead on the field, they will be molding the future crop of Herd tackles.
With Niemeyer trying to learn the intricacies of the position at the NCAA Division I level for the first time, it provides an interesting dynamic with only Van Horn to lean on as a fellow veteran.
“It’s not lonely, really. We talk about everything with each other,” Johansson said. “I can always call G-Scott and see what he’s up to if I have any questions. It’s fine. It’s just going to take some time to get adjusted to it.”
Mirabal said the similarities between Johansson and Van Horn are there, as well.
“Sebastian Johansson is the Swedish version of Clint Van Horn,” Mirabal said. “As a person, in terms of desire, from a pride standpoint, everything. It’s awesome to see those guys on the outside.”
Marshall had one of the nation’s top offenses for the last two years, and while much of that was built on the success of quarterback Rakeem Cato, the unseen hero has been an offensive line that has helped the Herd establish a strong balance rushing and passing.
Johansson’s athleticism not only helps the Herd get an athletic tackle on the outside to protect Cato, but also opens the pathway for Blake Brooks and Michael Selby — the prototypical bullish-style guards — to aid the Herd’s rushing attack.
It’s a move by Mirabal and head coach Doc Holliday that is a bit outside the box with Johansson only being 285 pounds, which is smaller than normal for a left tackle.
The vision for the future, however, is that it could strengthen the Herd inside the box.