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September 1, 2010Cody Johnson didn't just change his body. He's changing his personality.
He was the class clown. The guy who makes the fart sound in the board meeting, just to keep things loose. His teammates call him "Big Baby."
But listening to Cody Johnson now, it's not just that he's taken his body fat from 21 percent to 14 percent over the last year. Or that he's gone from 264 to 251 with a diet of greens and protein.
He said it himself, he's had to ditch the "immaturity."
"I just got tired of being that guy who has the potential but never wants to fulfill to it. It was a self thing I had to do on my own," Johnson told me when I asked him what finally snapped him into discipline.
Running backs coach Major Applewhite said there were "hundreds of text messages" over the past several months asking Johnson: "Where's your weight?", "What are we doing tonight?", "What are we doing to get better?", "What are we focusing on today?"
"He's got a decision to either respond to it or not," Applewhite said Tuesday. "And he's responded to it. He seriously knows he has two years left. He's a hungry athlete right now. I'm pleased to see his shift mentally."
"Cody has done a great job since spring, not just from the physical side, but has done a better job in meetings - taking notes, paying attention, just the things you need to be a great football player.
"But we're a long way from done. It's a process to become a great player and champion."
I asked Johnson if he is taking Mack Brown's focus to improve the running game this season personally.
"If you have someone in front of you, it's all about who wants it the most," Johnson said. "I feel in my heart that I want it the most, so if you're going to tackle me, good luck."
That's why he's in the starting lineup. That drive, want-to and love of physical contact is contagious.
"Cody is more of a leader," said receiver James Kirkendoll. "He's helping to set the attitude on the offense. And he brings a lot of energy to the huddle."
Mack Brown said he wasn't sure he'd ever see Johnson in this kind of shape.
"After spring practice he pulled another hamstring and we said, 'That's OK, that's what you want ? to be short-yardage and goal-line tailback, so let's move on,'" Mack said.
"Then, when we come back from the summer, and all I hear is 'Cody, Cody, Cody.' He's worked really hard, and I'm pulling for him. At 251 pounds, he's quick and powerful and our guys don't like tackling him.
"He's a force out there. We thought he was a special player in high school. But he had not come into his own to be really good. Now, he's done that.
"I do not want to take away from what Tre' or Fozzy have done, because they've been really good. They're fresher because Cody has taken a lot of their reps. They're healthier because of that. All three will play (against Rice)."
Applewhite said Johnson's start against Rice on Saturday is not merely a reward for losing the weight.
"I don't know how the carries are going to be distributed," Applewhite said. "But he's getting this start not because he's lost body fat. He's getting this start because of the production he's provided in fall two-a-days and in the spring.
"He's allowed himself to be an every-down back by doing some of the things we had to pull him out of the game for last year. If we were going to use this pass or this screen, he wasn't fit for that.
"He's allowed himself to stay in the game because he's improved in those situations. If he continues to produce, he'll keep getting the bulk of the carries.
"He's playing with better pad level. Sometimes big backs don't always run big. Ricky Williams could underneath a coffee table. He had great pad level as a runner. Cody has gotten better with his pad level and also with his route running because he's lost body fat. He's become more flexible and agile as an athlete."
Applewhite said Johnson has been so effective moving the pile that he allows Greg Davis to start thinking run on plays like third-and-3.
"Usually you think run on third-and-1 or third-and-2," Applewhite said. "When we had Vince (Young) and Ced (Benson), we were able to run it on third-and-5. Cody allows you start thinking run on a down-and-distance like third-and-3.
"With a guy his size and his pad level, he turns those minus-1 or minus-2 yard plays to get back to the line of scrimmage or even possibly gain yards," Applewhite added.
"Some of the smaller backs who bounce it outside have the threat of losing more yards. Cody can move the pile, break an arm tackle and keep us on schedule in terms of moving the chains."
And if Cody comes out on third down, Applewhite feels Tre' Newton and Foswhitt Whittaker are excellent third-down backs.
"Tre' and Fozzy are great with pass protections and are more suited, truthfully, for a third-down type role," Applewhite said. "Cody is able to do that if we need him to."
Count Whittaker among those who love the move to put Garrett Gilbert under center.
"You're able to get downhill a lot faster," Whittaker said. "The way we ran before you had to kind of run sideways before you could get downhill. Now that we're under center, we're able to get downhill right now.
"I feel like it's going to be beneficial for us and the O-line because they are able to stay on their blocks just a tad bit longer and get double teams a little bit longer and move the ball."
Johnson now has the opportunity of a lifetime with the offense changing to better suit the running backs. He doesn't plan on wasting it.
"I had to take my immaturity and get rid of it," he said. "I have to be mature now and get the huddle crunk and set the tempo. Basically, I wanted to be a guy who could lead by example instead of verbally.
"I try to set the tempo. When me, Fozzy (Whittaker) or Tre' (Newton) is in the game, we have to set the tempo. Anything you can do to make your offensive line want to block better for you, that's what we have to do.
"I'm happy switched to where we are more downhill and moving from the gun to under center.
"I can run for a long period of time. Dropping the weight was a big achievement for me and now that I can help my team, it feels really good.
You drop 10 pounds and change your body fat, you feel it. We'll see on Saturday how much it's helped."
Junior defensive tackle Tyrell Higgins of Schertz Clemens is finally back where he set out to be.
No one was quite sure if Higgins would ever end up in the starting lineup at Texas when he bolted school in the spring of 2008.
Without going into much detail, Higgins said he lost focus as a freshman at Texas and had to go back home to San Antonio to figure it out (there was never any off-the-field trouble). Higgins took only one semster off from Texas (taking classes at a community college in San Antonio) before returning.
But the move cost his scholarship at Texas. If he wanted to come back, Higgins would have to do it on his own. His parents, who both serve in the military, stood behind him. So all of last year, Higgins paid his own way.
"I had a tough freshman year," Higgins said. "I came in not focused on what I should have been and what I was recruited to do. I was focused more on myself, and I paid the price for it.
"I'm glad to be back and glad to be back on scholarship. It was a long time coming for that as well. I'm glad to be back and feel like I'm part of the team."
When I asked Higgins what he learned from his experience, he said:
"I learned to humble myself and not take anything for granted because things can be taken from you just as fast as they are given to you. I learned I need to work for everything I'm given and do it every single day."
One experience that changed his life came this summer on an 11-day, medical mission to Nigeria with Sam Acho and Emmanuel Acho and the Achos' father.
"Sam offered me the opportunity to do that, and our relationship grew a lot on that 11-day trip," Higgins said. "What hit me was the kids. They save their money to buy books and pencils and things.
"In America, we save our money for video games and remote-control cars and things like that. It's exciting to see something like that first-hand."
Sam Acho feels like Higgins is ready to have a big year.
"Tyrell can help us," Acho said. "And he will."
With both Calvin Howell and Alex Okafor missing some of camp with minor injuries, Higgins jumped to the top of the depth chart at defensive tackle for Saturday's opener against Rice.
He knows nothing is guaranteed.
"Coach Muschamp tells us that all the time, 'The depth chart changes every day,'" Higgins said. "So I just need to go out there and do the best I can do and see where that takes me."
Will Muschamp said he's seen the change in Higgins' work ethic.
"I think Tyrell has made the biggest change in the weight room," Muschamp said. "He is stronger [and] better. He can hold the double attack on the better teams, as opposed to spring ball and back in the fall.
"He has answered our challenge to him as far as becoming a better player and contributor. We are going to play about five guys inside, and he is certainly one of them."
Mack Brown was impressed enough with Higgins' re-commitment to Texas football that he gave Higgins his scholarship back before this season.
"It was a surprise to me," said Higgins, adding that his teammates surrounded him in celebration. "It was a big burden off my shoulders. I knew I had a lot of friends. When the whole team surrounded me, I felt like they were all pulling for me."