MADISON, Wisconsin— When Rodas Johnson stepping on a radiator, he may be one of the most potent point guards on the Wisconsin Badgers defense.
Staying warm and productive, however, has always been the issue.
The 6-foot-2, 291-pound defensive end has been a headache for offensive linemen in fits and starts. He wants to change that more consistently this season, a season in which he will have an expanded role.
Johnson, a redshirt junior, admits he still has some work to do in that regard. But there’s no denying the progress he’s shown in the three full workouts reporters have observed during this training camp.
“As a coach, you love the passion he plays with and the energy he plays with,” defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard said. “When he’s hot he’s a big deal for teams in the running game and how active he is in the passing game. He certainly made a big improvement. And he sees an opportunity. He had a taste last year to get a decent amount of shots, and he’s a guy who doesn’t want to leave the field. It’s really fun to see guys like that continue to grow.
Johnson, who appeared in 11 of 13 games last season, apparently made at least one hard-hitting play in every practice reporters watched. His best performance came last Saturday when he stopped racing Braelon Allen for a loss of yards before reaching the quarterback Graham Mertz for a possible bag. He recorded another tackle for a loss before the end of the session, stopping the wide receiver Skyler Bell on an end-turn.
Johnson arrived at Mertz for another potential sack in Monday’s session and then stopped the No. 2 running back At Mellusi’s for minimal gain.
With his side strong, Johnson lined up to start against the fifth-year senior Isaiah Mullensthe most experienced defensive end on the roster and the only one with starting experience (33 games, seven starts). Matt Henningsen started against Mullens last year and had his most productive season before declaring himself for the NFL draft, where the Denver Broncos selected him in the seventh round.
Other defensive purposes like McDonald’s Cade, James Thompson Jr. and Isaac Townsend can also have roles. Townsend, who transferred from Oregon last year, improved at spring prom but did not attend fall camp.
“I’m definitely trying to work on my production as a player,” Johnson said. “The most important thing I want to make sure I focus on is being reliable and making sure I always do my job. Even if I want to play a big game, I just have to develop that discipline to m make sure I’m doing what I need to do for everyone to succeed. Just be consistent.
Johnson possesses a combination of explosiveness and speed that can be difficult for offensive linemen to manage. He showed those traits in a September loss to Notre Dame last season when he recorded his first career dismissal. With the game tied at 10 in the third quarter, he worked his way past the left tackle and drilled the quarterback Drew Pyne, who coughed the ball to the Badgers on impact. Johnson also recorded two tackles in that game, one of which was lost for seven yards.
“He’s quick, he’s quick, man,” sixth-year senior left guard Tyler Beach said. “He can shake a guy straight off of him. He’s a nervous guy, definitely our most nervous defensive lineman.”
How does Johnson feel when he frequently dominates his matchups?
“I’m really, really confident and I don’t believe anyone can stop me,” said Johnson, who had seven total tackles in 2021. “Football is a selfish sport, so I try to develop that ego and to trust the guys next to me. That’s what it’s all about. Everyone has to do their job, and me earn my job to make the game.”
Johnson has been at this level more often in camp. Now he aims to stay there when the games start.
“Most definitely,” Johnson said. “I’ve had a lot of good days, but I’ve also had a few days where I have to work on that consistency and do my job in general.”