Above photo of Caleb Johnson by Pat Carrigan, Courtesy of the UMHB Athletics Department
BELTON, Texas- Caleb Johnson’s starting job at defensive end has not been earned easily.
But then again, very few starting roles on UMHB’s nationally renowned defense are.
The fifth-year senior has been a breakout player for the Crusaders’ defensive front early in the 2021 season, causing disruption to both Simpson College and ETBU’s passing attacks. He broke up two passes against the Storm and tallied two tackles, one for an 18-yard loss, against the Tigers.
In fact, Johnson was a player head coach, Pete Fredenburg, specifically noted after the Cru’s dominant 84-6 week one win.
“I was proud of Caleb Johnson especially,” Fredenburg told the media last week. “I think he’s really had a great preseason and has started off really strong.”
It has been a long time coming for Johnson, a 6’1, 250 lb native of Corsicana, Texas. He entered the spring with confidence, having played in 12 games in 2019.
But he saw the field in just three games, missing both the season opener and ASC championship, after fighting off Covid twice and struggling to regain his high-caliber play.
“You know he’s always been a talented youngster, but this year for some reason [he’s been exceptional], I think because he suffered so much in the spring,” Fredenburg said of Johnson on Monday. “He had Covid, he had a hard time getting over it, and he never really came back as healthy as he had been. I think the reality of missing [part of the spring] and the opportunity for his final year, he really worked hard through the summer.”
Despite the challenges that came with being sidelined, Johnson told the media Wednesday that he never doubted his ability to once again compete for a starting role.
“I don’t think I had an instance where I thought that was my last go-around,” Johnson said. “But I had a bad taste in my mouth [from the spring]. It was a hard year for me, catching Covid twice and really hurt me to where I wasn’t in shape like I wanted to be.”
The additional season granted by the NCAA to all Div. III student-athletes gave Johnson hope for a strong finish to his collegiate career. With a good summer of training and development, he had the potential to be starting in the fall.
“Knowing I had that Covid season to actually get another season, it made me hungry to come back and be better than I was last year,” Johnson told reporters.
That hard work and grind was evident on day one of practice, and has paid dividends for UMHB’s defense. Johnson opened Saturday’s win over ETBU by taking down running back Bailey Badeaux for an 18-yard loss, giving the Cru momentum that powered them to a 24-0 halftime lead.
Yet, the defense was not up to “national championship” standards according to Johnson, something he hopes to change as a leader on that side of the ball.
“Yes I do,” Johnson replied when asked if he feels he has a role pushing the defense to reach new heights. “That was a wakeup call. We won the game, but that’s not national championship defense at all, that’s not national championship football, period.
“That does fall on me as a leader to push our defense to be even better, to push the team as a whole to be better to where we play national championship ball and we get to where we need to get.”
That national title quest resumes on Saturday in top-ranked UMHB’s first road contest against Southwestern, an ASC opponent who is also 1-0 in conference play. The Pirates are led by dual-threat quarterback Landry Gilpin, who amassed 267 yards of offense in last week’s 34-27 win at Belhaven.
Johnson expects a challenge from Gilpin, but facing off against UMHB quarterback Kyle King in practice has prepared the Crusader defense well.
“I know Kyle is going to give me his best everyday in practice and he’s going to give me the picture I need to take on a quarterback like Southwestern has,” Johnson said. “I’m glad we have somebody like Kyle who gives his all in practice.”
Not only will the Cru be facing a skilled signal caller, but it will also be in a new environment.
That does not worry Johnson, though.
“Road, home, it doesn’t matter,” Johnson said with a laugh. “We treat it like another game, another week, another test that we have to play great and do what we need to do. We have a national championship to go to.”