18-year-old right tackle secures spot in rotation
Antwan Lowery remembers his first training camp in Piscataway.
The post-practice sprints traditionally tough on offensive and defensive linemen were no different for Lowery. If anything, they were worse.
Lowery knows the adjustment period for high school linemen that relied on shear size all too well — losing weight, then building it back up with strength — which makes playing next to freshman Kaleb Johnson at right guard even more impressive.
“He came in ready to play ball,” said Lowery, a redshirt sophomore. “I was proud of him, because that was something I didn’t do. To see a guy come in ready to play ball as a true freshman really helped him get on the field early.”
In an offensive line incessantly changing, the true freshman from Jacksonville, Fla., established himself as a constant.
Johnson did not play the first two games of the season, but debuted as a starter in Week 3 against Ohio and played every snap at right tackle since.
Head coach Greg Schiano expects mistakes out of the 18-year-old, but accepts the tradeoff because of Johnson’s upside, highlighted by his physicality.
“No matter what he does, he’s going to block somebody,” Lowery said. “If it’s the wrong guy, he’s still going to block him.”
But Johnson is improving with the mental aspect of the game.
He made a call at the line of scrimmage last week against Pittsburgh and two days later proudly informed the media.
He never had an experienced offensive lineman to turn to at right guard, either, as he made his first career start alongside redshirt freshman right guard Betim Bujari.
Bujari replaced Lowery as the starter after the first two games and took every snap against Ohio, but gave way to Lowery a week later against Syracuse.
Lowery started against Pitt, but Bujari continued to split time.
“I definitely needed that in my life,” Lowery said. “What happened really showed me that your job isn’t safe, and you have to go out and compete every day for your job. It allowed me to really see the other side, and it allowed me to play good.”
Johnson witnessed his fellow Floridian’s practice repetitions get cut during a bye week and the subsequent week of Ohio practices. And he watched Lowery work his way back into the starting lineup, where he makes his home next to Johnson.
“I have a lot of respect for Lowery,” Johnson said. “Sometimes he’s not perfect, just like all of us. We’re human and we make mistakes, but he bounced back. He bounced back and now he’s starting again.”
Johnson figures to continue earning starts.
Schiano talks about wanting to find a consistent starting five and fixing the problems that plagued the Scarlet Knights for the past two seasons, and Johnson is likely at the heart of it. For now, that is at right tackle.
“He’s getting better each week,” Schiano said. “He’s very strong and explosive.”