Sebastian Johansson’s Long Road Paved with Effort, Opportunity
When Alex Mirabal arrived at Marshall as offensive line coach in February 2013, he heard a lot about two Herd youngsters who had no resumes … and what he heard wasn’t good.
Well, turns out those two players were more than pretty good. One is right tackle Clint Van Horn, who was an All-Conference USA first team pick in 2014 – a year after being a second team selection. Van Horn missed most of this season due to injury.
The other is left guard Sebastian “Swede” Johansson, a 2015 All-C-USA first teamer who will close his career as a three-year starter on Dec. 26 when the Herd faces Connecticut in the eighth annual St. Petersburg Bowl.
While it was Van Horn and all-conference second team center Michael Selby who gained the most preseason attention as the Herd’s top players up front, Johansson got little notice – other than being a veteran “tutor” for inexperienced sophomore left tackle Sandley Jean-Felix.
That’s changed now for a redshirt senior from Karlstad, Sweden, who didn’t play his first two years in the program. A player who Coach Doc Holliday has often said he wasn’t sure would ever play has been a steady starter for teams with a combined 32-8 record.
“Actually, I rarely look at anything like that,” Johansson said earlier this week when asked about his all-conference selection. “I didn’t find out until about 4-5 hours (after it was announced) when (linebacker) D.J. Hunter told me about 5 or 6 o’clock that day.
“And it’s a lot of fun. I’m just glad I did it, so my parents can see that all the hard work paid off. It’s just nice to get acknowledged that you put yourself into it, day-in and day-out. I just appreciate it.”
The red-haired Johansson had a special season for the Herd (9-3). The 6-foot-5, 300-pounder played 886 of the Herd’s 938 offensive snaps, and met his assignment on 883 of 886 (99.7 percent). He didn’t give up a sack and committed only one penalty, producing 38 knockdowns.
When he committed to Marshall in March 2011, Johansson had played one season of high school football as a junior exchange student at Raceland (Ky.) High School. He also had played American football in his homeland, where he also competed in European handball against kids four years older because he was too big to go against those his own age.
In his first two seasons at Marshall, he watched, learned, listened, practiced … and he was about ready to give up the sport when Mirabal arrived after he was part of a staff that was fired at his alma mater, FIU.
To say that Mirabal switched the light on for Johansson (and Van Horn) would be an understatement.
“I think a lot of it has to do with the fact when I first got here all I heard about Swede and (Clint) Van Horn was what they couldn’t do, what they haven’t done,” Mirabal said. “They don’t have the football IQ – all that other stuff. They can’t get it together.
“And coming off getting fired myself (with Mario Cristobal’s staff), it was kind of me, Swede and Van Horn in the same spot and I took it as a challenge. I kind of put myself in the same situation they were in, where people were discarding them. I said, ‘You know what? Let’s go.’
“We had the winter drills and all I saw was a kid who was powerful, who moved well, who worked his butt off — same with Van Horn. What ended up happening is Swede just worked his way into that opportunity, and we’re about to start spring ball and Swede’s going to be the backup left guard, No. 2, first day of spring.
“And (returning starter) Josh Lovell ends up showing up late for our first team meeting. I told Doc, ‘Look, we’ve got to do something to show these guys that we just don’t miss stuff and if you do, you’re not going to be with the first group – even if it only lasts one day’.
“The first day of spring ball comes, that Tuesday, and Swede rolls out with the first group at left guard, and never rolled back out. So, literally, Swede ‘Wally Pipped’ Josh Lovell. He really did. That was kind of the deal. Swede worked his way into the opportunity, and when someone else slipped up, we moved him in with the first group.”
Johansson has been there since, missing three starts only because of an ankle sprain last season, when he opened at left tackle before returning to guard when healthy. He will make his 38th career start in the bowl and only Chris Jasperse, Steve Sciullo and Nate McPeek have more among Herd offensive linemen in the current major college era (1997-present).
“Before I got here, I only had a legit O-line coach for six months, and that was in high school at Raceland,” Johansson said when asked about going from no experience to all-league. “Back home in Sweden, we didn’t have offensive line coaches. And so I was only coached one time.
“Like Coach Holliday has said, I was really raw when I first got here, which I hope people can understand with that kind of background. I wasn’t even on the map back then. I just wanted to get on the field, to play college football.
“With Coach Mirabal, starting out, he’s probably one of the best O-line coaches in the nation. That’s not a guess; I know that for a fact. We’ve both got hard heads, but I think we work well together. We have a mutual respect and he’s just a heck of a coach. I love him to death.”
With Van Horn out, it was left to Selby – voted a season team captain by the Herd – and Johansson to team with sophomores and freshmen up front. Mirabal and Johansson hope the Swede’s ability and effort to rise from nowhere on the roster to all-conference will help send a message to those underclassmen.
“I’m not a very vocal leader, so with Clint out, it’s a bit different, but I tried to push myself and show the guys you have to go out there and give 100 percent every day,” said Johansson, who gained his MU bachelor’s degree in sports management and marketing last December. “And that’s what I’ve been trying to do since the first day I got here. Just work hard and show we can’t let anything go.
“Well, hopefully what’s happened (Johansson’s all-C-USA selection) will help. I think every single young guy we have on the O-line now has a lot of talent. So, everything comes down to: Do you want it hard enough? Then keep on working … and I really hope they keep working as hard as they do right now.”
Mirabal said Johansson’s climb from raw to starter to all-league first team should be an eye-opener for those who follow on the Marshall offensive front.
“It’s huge because of the fact you preach work ethic, you preach the stick-to-itiveness of it, but when they see a guy who’s done it, a guy who in the preseason no one said he was going to be first team and here’s this guy, just by doing the right things, working hard.
“And Swede was huge for Sandley from a development standpoint – making sure he got it. And Swede’s a very introverted guy. He’s not a vocal leader. I’ve never voted for him to be a (game) captain because that’s not who he is. He’s not a guy to get out in front of the team. But I told him, from a leadership standpoint, you’ve got to make sure Sandley’s on the right page.
“And Sandley, really, he doesn’t have to think out there. He just has to listen – to Swede — and the great thing is, Swede has done such a great job with Sandley there have been certain times during the season where we’ve rested Swede and put other guards in and I told Sandley, ‘OK, you’ve got to make all of the calls.’ And he’s done it, so Swede’s done a great job tutoring Sandley and I credit a lot of Sandley’s development to Swede.”
Johansson said he’ll go home for a while and wants to attend Marshall’s Pro Day in early March, hoping his future includes more American football, but after playing 2,494 career snaps for the Herd, he’s thinking about his final game in the St. Petersburg Bowl.
“It feels kind of empty, to be honest,” Johansson said. “It feels now like when I’m done with this game you just don’t know what your trail has for you. But it’s going to be the last game in kelly green and it’s probably going to be a little emotional.
“Yes sir, I want to try (pro football). There’s some paperwork to do, but I’m coming back, for a little bit. Hopefully, it works itself out.”
Johansson is one of seven Herd all-conference offensive line picks (first or second team) in the last three years. Mirabal said the bearded Johansson played the part well.
“He’s got 38 starts, a first team all-conference kid and he earned it,” the Marshall line coach said. “He worked his way into it. And people say the coach shouldn’t matter, the player shouldn’t matter, but there’s a lot to things like that — a coach’s personality or demeanor and a player’s personality and demeanor. That meshing does matter. I don’t care what anybody says, it does matter.
“But you know what? Bottom line on Swede, no one should take credit for that guy but that guy.”