Finally, JSU’s Johnstone will get to play
by Al Muskewitz
Sep 23, 2013 | 2729 views |  0 comments | 18 18 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Taylor Johnstone has served as a student coach for Jacksonville State’s first four games. (Stephen Gross/The Anniston Star)
Taylor Johnstone has served as a student coach for Jacksonville State’s first four games. (Stephen Gross/The Anniston Star)
JACKSONVILLE — The best player on Jacksonville State’s offensive line makes his long-awaited senior debut this week, but don’t look for Taylor Johnstone to dwell on the circumstances that forced his delay in the first place.

He just doesn’t have that kind of time.

The only direction he is looking is forward.

The left guard, who spent the last three years working to break into the starting lineup, returns Saturday in the Gamecocks’ Ohio Valley Conference opener against Murray State (2-2) after sitting out the first four games because of an administrative miscalculation.

His return provides an instant infusion of maturity and leadership to the offensive front, and closes the most trying month in his playing career.

“I’ve been waiting for a long time it seems like, even though it’s only been four weeks,” Johnstone said Monday. “I just can’t wait to get back out there and play. Now, I’m just looking forward to the future. I’ve put everything else in the past. All is forgiven, and it’s all good.”

To understand the 6-foot-4, 300-pounder’s anticipation, one has to understand what he went through.

He changed majors twice — from physical education to liberal studies — and during the process was advised incorrectly by academic counselors. As a result, he wound up one hour short of NCAA guidelines for a student-athlete of his standing in progressing toward his degree.

The discrepancy was discovered only a week before the season opener.Johnstone “immediately started trying to fix” the situation.

“I worked with several people writing appeals letter,” he said. “They helped me, guided me through everything, spell-checked it, grammar-checked it — everything. I felt like I was fighting for my life. This is my season and the rest of the team’s season on the line. I tried to write this appeal the best I could.”

It wasn’t good enough.

The NCAA denied the appeal two days before the Gamecocks left for Alabama State, ruling he had to sit the first four games of the season.

In retrospect, Johnstone accepted some of the responsibility, saying he wasn’t “completely up to date and aware” of the courses he needed to have, but JSU head coach Bill Clark termed it in August a “clerical error” that put the player in a bind.

“It was terrible in the fact I’ve worked so hard the past couple years just to be able to play,” he said. “My goal is to win championships and when they tell you the first four games are gone, it’s your senior year and you only get 11 games to begin with, that’s over a third of my season.

“I worked so hard alongside my teammates and they counted on me. I took it pretty hard.”

He wasn’t the only one. He said his wife of six months, Paige, still finds it difficult to watch the games without getting upset.

Johnstone was far from idle during the month. While he couldn’t play on Saturday, he continued to practice — with the second string — and on game day was tasked with coaching the left guards, which last week at Georgia State was junior starter Terrence Pendleton and Arkansas State transfer Michael Flint.

He took the coaching assignment seriously, often stepping into the huddle during timeouts until Clark motioned him back to the bench area.

In Johnstone’s absence, the Gamecocks averaged 415 yards of offense and 32 points a game.

“I want to brag on the guys who have stepped in, but it sure helps to have your leader back out there,” Clark said. “I think it makes us a better O-line for sure and a better overall offense having him back.”

Johnstone will return to his former spot now that he’s back.

Pendleton slides back behind Blake Burks on the depth chart at right guard.

The Racers present challenges. They may be last in the OVC in total defense and rushing defense, but they are second in the league in sacks. Buck linebacker Chavez Sims leads the league in sacks (five) and tackles for loss.

What Johnstone has now is “eight guaranteed games” he hopes turns into a long run in the playoffs.

“One of my personal goal is always to play as hard as I can,” Johnstone said. “If you watch film on me from the past you’ll see I try to do that to the best of my ability. I feel this is just fueling the fire.”

Al Muskewitz covers Jacksonville State sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.
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