My all-time favorite assistant coach Missouri football has had on staff is Bruce Walker. Craig Kuligowski was the rock star assistant, churning out elite pass rushers and NFL talent as a defensive line coach, and Dr. Pat Ivey is probably the most under-appreciated as a strength and conditioning coach. But Walker was my favorite, and another “under-the-radar” guy who helped shaped Missouri into the juggernaut of the ‘07-13 years. Walker came from Toledo with Coach Gary Pinkel in 2000 as a tight ends coach and assistant line coach. Offensive Coordinator Dave Christensen was the offensive line coach by title, but Walker was instrumental in coaching up the line on gamedays. Walker mentored All-American tight ends Martin Rucker and Chase Coffman in ‘07 and ‘08, and in 2009, he assumed full control of the line. With Walker’s guidance, the Tiger offensive line morphed from a unit that could pass protect but struggled in short-yardage situations to a beefy behemoth that could stand up to the fearsome Oklahoma defensive lines of the late aughts and the SEC lines of the early teens. His greatest feat, however, was his last year on the Missouri staff; that year, 2013, he took a gangly kid from Lebanon, MO, an athletic Texan, a prime talent from Kansas City, a weight lifting champ from North Dakota, and the physical manifestation of rock n’ roll, and molded them into one of the greatest offensive lines Missouri has ever seen.
Four of those gentlemen are in the NFL and all but one were afterthoughts in their recruitment. Hell, Max Copeland was a damn walk-on! That’s 12-combined recruiting stars for four NFL starters and it was Bruce Walker who made it possible. When he retired after the 2013 season, A.J. Ricker took over and the offense line fell from 6th in 2013 to 24th in 2014 and 102nd in 2015. Glen Elerbee then came in and the line regressed to 105th in 2016 but rocketed up to 15th in 2017. Of course he left with Josh Heupel, and then Brad Davis came in and coached an offensive line in 2018 that ranked in the Top 25 in every advanced line stat...and then performed 70th or worse in every line stat in 2019. Offensive line play is overly reliant on cohesion between all five guys, as opposed to individual talent at a given position. Add to that the fact that linemen get so much bigger between high school and college and you get a position that’s tough to project. Regardless, Missouri has shown several instances of fielding elite lines, and needs a guy to come in and not only implement size, but skill and cohesion as well.
Meet Marcus Johnson. Marcus played in the SEC and the NFL and is familiar with the grind that an impossible schedule against the most talented defensive lines in the world demands. However, as a coach, he’s only spent two years on an SEC staff and, to be frank, his lines have been hit or miss.
Here’s his (brief) coaching history:
77% of his coaching history has been at Duke under David Cutcliffe. Two years as strength and conditioning, three years as a quality control coach, and the last two as Coach Cut’s offensive line coach. He then joined The Yankee Joe Moorhead on his Mississippi State staff before joining the Tigers. Neither of those schools are blue bloods so he’s used to operating at a talent/financial deficit.
Marcus Johnson’s link to the rest of the staff
Is he good at what he does?
Four sample sizes to choose from, we’ll start with his first full-time gig as an offensive line coach:
Duke Offense 2016 - 80th - Offensive Line
- Adjusted Line Yards - 31st
- Standard Downs Rushing - 68th
- Passing Downs Rushing - 69th
- Opportunity Rate - 91st
- Power Success Rate - 101st
- Stuff Rate - 35th
- Sack Rate - 68th
For context, the 2016 Duke team was absolutely demolished by injuries. Thomas Sirk was supposed to be the starting dual-threat quarterback but was injured early in the year and replaced by a freshman walk-on (and current New York Giants QB) Daniel Jones. The receiving corps was a bunch of new guys and the running game was hampered by injuries in the backfield and the line. What Johnson’s line did was basically do an excellent job of keeping defenses out of the back field (stuff rate) but struggled in opening holes (opportunity rate) or succeeding in short-yardage/goal-line situations (power success rate). And, regardless of down and distance, the running game was average, unable to move the ball consistently, forcing the Blue Devils to use the short passing game as an extension (or full replacement) of the run.
Duke Offense 2017 - 46th - Offensive Line
- Adjusted Line Yards - 29th
- Standard Downs Rushing - 63rd
- Passing Downs Rushing - 58th
- Opportunity Rate - 78th
- Power Success Rate - 13th
- Stuff Rate - 82nd
- Sack Rate - 48th
Duke was still incredibly young in 2017, but had experience from the 2016 train wreck to improve the overall offense and the overall record. The offensive line, with five upperclassmen starters, improved slightly in most categories but made a huge leap in power success rate, going from 101st to 13th. The sack rate improved slightly and the stuff rate regressed noticeably but, overall, the experience helped not only the line but the offense as a whole.
Mississippi State Offense 2018 - 32nd - Offensive Line
- Rushing - 6th
- Rushing Efficiency - 10th
- Standard Downs Line Yards - 5th
- Passing Downs Line Yards - 4th
- Opportunity Rate - 2nd
- 3rd-and-Short Success Rate - 52nd
- Goal Line Success Rate - 122nd
- Stuff Rate - 13th
- Sack Rate - 99th
Easily his best work, the 2018 Mississippi State running game was one of the best in the country and the offensive line was easily the best of Johnson’s career. Quarterback Nick Fitzgerald essentially ran the Joe Moorhead-version of the Wing-T offense with running backs Kylin Hill and Nick Gibson. The line was the 2nd best in the country in opening up holes for 4-yard gains and was elite at both standard downs or passing downs. They struggled in third-and-short situations and were oddly terrible at the goal line, but tackles for loss were rare and the only defense that could stop the Bulldog ground game were elite defenses.
Mississippi State Offense 2019 - 36th - Offensive Line
- Rushing - 25th
- Rushing Efficiency - 12th
- Standard Downs Line Yards - 101st
- Passing Downs Line Yards - 23rd
- Opportunity Rate - 27th
- 3rd-and-Short Success Rate - 20th
- Goal Line Success Rate - 71st
- Stuff Rate - 16th
- Sack Rate - 119th
With losing option-maestro Fitzgerald and several starters on the line, regression was bound to happen. The running game became mortal and defenses stopped fearing any sort of deep-ball threat, playing close and suffocating most running plays. Johnson’s o-line still did some damage on short-yardage plays and maintained their excellence in getting backs four yards and keeping defenses out of the backfield, but the lack of a passing game (or the ability to protect the passer) limited the offensive effectiveness.
As is tradition, here’s your TL;DR:
- Used to working with programs that aren’t blue bloods
- Familiar with the SEC as a player and a coach
- Last two lines were the best of his career
- Has only been an o-line coach for four years
- Never worked with anyone on this staff
- Has had one good offensive line in his four years of coaching
Coach Johnson, like a good chunk of this staff, is young and motivated. Strength coaches are some of the best people and most adored dudes on the staff, so I like that he has that additional experience under his belt. If he’s good at identifying guys that work well together and can field some consistent offensive lines that would be a huge improvement from his past stops. This is another “wait and see” type of hire at a position that is going to have a lot of holes to fill. Best of luck, Coach Johnson!