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Caleb Johnson goes from bouncer to bouncing opponents for UCLA

Caleb Johnson runs with the ball in a Nov. 15 game.
UCLA linebacker Caleb Johnson (40) runs with the ball after intercepting a pass against California on Nov. 15.
(Don Liebig / UCLA Photography)

Phil Austin has this to say about Caleb Johnson, and he means it in the kindest way possible:

“He was just a freak,” the Fullerton College assistant coach said of his former player.

When Johnson starred at Fullerton, the 6-foot-1, 215-pound linebacker was a devastating hitter, could rush the passer and easily dropped into coverage. He out-ran defensive backs and chased down receivers. And he was one of the strongest players on Fullerton’s undefeated 2017 team.

But before Johnson could parlay his athletic gifts into a UCLA scholarship, he found another use for his skillset: working weekends as a bouncer at bars in downtown Fullerton.

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“I’ve seen some crazy stuff when I was working,” Johnson said, recalling the seemingly nightly routine of removing at least one customer from the premises.

Now instead of throwing rowdy patrons out of bars, Johnson is tossing opposing players to the turf for a UCLA defense trying to turn a corner in the third year under Chip Kelly. The redshirt junior linebacker has 12 tackles, which ranks tied for fourth on the team, with 3½ tackles for loss and 2½ sacks.

The Bruins (1-2) ranked 62nd and 61st in the nation in sacks and tackles for loss, respectively, last year. They’re 20th in sacks and fifth in tackles for loss entering the fourth week of the Pac-12 season.

Chase Griffin has no idea whether he’ll need to start again in place of Dorian Thompson-Robinson, but the UCLA quarterback is doing all he can to seize his chance.

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After 2½ tackles for loss and an interception in UCLA’s win against California, Johnson didn’t get into the backfield against Oregon last week, hampered by an apparent left arm injury suffered in the first half. He returned in the second half with white tape wrapped tightly around his arm from mid-biceps to his forearm. He’ll fight to get healthy for UCLA’s game against Arizona at the Rose Bowl on Saturday at 5 p.m., but Johnson is no stranger to the task.

The Murrieta native sandwiched a stand-out year at Fullerton between two injuries. Between rehabilitating a groin injury in 2016 as a grayshirt and working through a shoulder injury in 2018, Johnson starred on Fullerton’s state-championship-winning team in 2017. He had 41 tackles, 8½ tackles for loss and 5½ sacks.

“He was the best player on that team by far,” said Austin, Fullerton’s special teams and defensive backs coach. (Fullerton’s wins were later forfeited due to ineligible players.)

Johnson was so good, his recruiting wasn’t affected when he missed his second year. Iowa State, Oregon, Colorado, Arkansas and Texas still pursued him. Enamored by Texas’ tradition and history, he chose the Longhorns but transferred after he reinjured his shoulder and his relationship with the coaching staff soured.
He entered his name in the transfer portal three games into the season without ever playing.

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”...I’ve seen him improve from Game 1 to Game 2 to Game 3 so we’re excited about him taking another step here going into Game 4.”

UCLA coach Chip Kelly on Caleb Johnson

“He knew his worth,” Johnson’s mother, Darla, said. “That just made me proud of him … for him to take a chance and say, ‘You know what, this is not working.’”

Johnson hoped he could return to Southern California. UCLA was graduating all its starting linebackers. Less than an hour after his name entered the portal, Johnson heard from the Bruins.

“It just felt like it was God’s plan at that point,” Johnson said.

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The plan has stayed mostly intact, even with the COVID-19 pandemic. Johnson enrolled in January, giving him a few spring practices before the pandemic suspended the team’s workouts. He still excelled in the classroom, being named to the UCLA athletic director’s honor roll for winter 2020 and spring 2020 as a student-athlete who earned a grade point average of 3.0 or higher and passed 12 quarter units.

It’s a far cry from the high school prospect whose only shot at a college offer was dropped by Wyoming when he didn’t meet the academic requirements.

“In high school, I was not focused or anything on school,” said Johnson, who had 120 tackles, 10 tackles for loss and six sacks as a senior for Vista Murrieta. “When I got to [junior college], I really had to change my mindset.”

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Johnson’s parents supported their youngest child in junior college but also challenged him to start evaluating his life. Injured and trying to catch up academically, Johnson wondered whether football was in his future. He considered joining the military.

Motivated by seeing other friends transfer to larger schools, Johnson stayed in the sport. The Bruins are glad he did.

“He’s been really consistent in terms of what we’re asking him to do,” Kelly said. “And I’ve seen him improve from Game 1 to Game 2 to Game 3, so we’re excited about him taking another step here going into Game 4.”

The soft-spoken Johnson is staying level-headed as his UCLA career takes off. He didn’t even tell his mother he was going to start for the Bruins this year. When she turned the TV on for the season opener, she was overjoyed to see her son and his No. 40 jersey lined up on the opening play against Colorado.

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Austin didn’t recognize his former player when the Fullerton assistant watched UCLA’s first game. Johnson, listed at 235 pounds, was 20 pounds heavier than he was at Fullerton, where he was so dynamic that Austin would spend as much time with his defensive backs watching film of Johnson as they did of their own unit.

Austin, who has been at Fullerton since 2008 as a part-time assistant and joined as a full-time faculty member and assistant in 2017, was a defensive quality control coach for UCLA from 2012 to ’13. Working primarily with the linebackers, the former all-conference safety at Hawaii got a personal look at one of UCLA’s most successful positions groups with Anthony Barr, Eric Kendricks and Myles Jack.

It’s premature to say Johnson, after three games, will follow the NFL linebackers who passed through UCLA before him, but Austin sees shades of Jack in the latest UCLA project. Even as a linebacker, Johnson was so fast that he regularly outran defensive backs at Fullerton. Like Jack, who made cameos at running back at UCLA, Johnson moved to several different positions during his career and is still learning the nuances of linebacker.

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“I’ll tell you: Myles didn’t always know what he was doing,” Austin said with a laugh. “But Myles was the best athlete on the field.”

Jack was a smoother athlete than Johnson, Austin adds, but Johnson is much more physical. That’s a quality some customers in downtown Fullerton know firsthand.


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