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True freshman Roderick Johnson shines at left tackle as FSU's offensive line shuffle pays off

Johnson is just the latest true freshman to step up for Florida State's offense.

Johnson reported to FSU at a trim 330 pounds
Johnson reported to FSU at a trim 330 pounds
Steve Chase 2014

"Why was this the right time to make the move," I asked Jimbo Fisher after his Seminoles stormed back to beat the Miami Hurricanes.

The move, of course, was the decision to start Cam Erving, a starter of 30+ games at left tackle over the last three years, at center, and to give true freshman Roderick Johnson the start at left tackle.

"Because he had to develop and the left tackle was ready to play," Fisher said. "Over the last couple of weeks, he has put himself in position to play. You never know when Freshmen are ready, and he is an extremely talented young man."

Ready he was. Johnson showed strong athleticism, power and composure in protecting Jameis Winston's backside. And he was strong in the run game, as well.

Very early on, the question for Johnson was when he would become a great player, and not if. After just a week of camp, I emailed our editorial staff that I was "hearing awesome things about Rod Johnson." It helped that he showed up in fantastic shape (photo 1photo 2, via Steve Chase).

Out of Florissant (Mo.) Hazelwood Central High School, Johnson stands 6'7 and checks in at a surprisingly trim 330 pounds. The competition he faced in high school wasn't very good, but he did dominate it, and Florida State won the battle for his signature over Ohio State. He was rated four-stars, and one of the top 15 offensive tackle recruits in the country.

But left tackle is not easy to play, and when the man the left tackle is tasked with protecting is the injured Heisman Trophy winner, it becomes all the more important. Plus, given that many true freshmen hit a wall in November, it was surprising to see Johnson come on strong late.

"He had a great day," Winston said. "He stepped up, and we told him we had his back no matter what. I told him, 'Rod, we got your back, and we know you have ours, so don't stress.' "

His teammates backed up the praise.

"I feel like Rod did really well, I didn't see a lot of pressures in the backfield" Erving said. "He is a freshman starting the Miami game, it is his first real start. I know Rod did well. I know Rod has a lot of great potential.

"Rod is a grown man," defensive end Mario Edwards, Jr. said. "If he gets his hands on you, you can pretty much cash it in. You ain't going nowhere. He's only going to grow and get better."

Winston and Erving feel that the sky is the limit for Johnson.

"Rod is a really good player," Erving said. "He knows how to drop his hips really well. Sometimes he does better on Mario Edwards than I do, ya know,that is just being honest. Rod is going to be a great player. He has potential. As long as he keeps listening to Coach Trickett, I am sure the sky is the limit for him."

"Big Rod, man, he's going to be a tremendous left tackle," Winston said. "He is so talented, and he is so kind. One of the nicest people you will ever meet in your life."

Florida State does not allow true freshmen to be interviewed, but I've been saving this audio interview from signing day, and it gives a great insight into the gentle giant and him being a very nice person, as Winston described.

Have a listen, starting at 1:40

It's only one game, and he'll certainly have his struggles as teams see more film on him, but Johnson has all the makings of a star at the position.

Erving to center

The move wasn't all about Johnson's play at left tackle. Center has been a trouble spot for the Seminoles in 2014. FSU had to replace Bryan Stork, who is now the starter for the New England Patriots. Senior Austin Barron was improving in the role before he fractured his arm, which meant that redshirt freshman Ryan Hoefeld was pressed into duty.

Though Hoefeld may become a good player down the line, he had some significant struggles and was not showing much game-to-game improvement. And FSU had been working Erving at center on and off since camp, because it likes his flexibility and size on the inside.

But there were many considerations that went into the move.

Would Erving, who came back to improve his NFL stock, be OK with the move? Could Erving snap at a sufficient level (we had seen him shoot off some wild snaps, especially out of shotgun in pregame warmups during the season), and how would his elbow injury and elbow brace impact his snapping? And could a true freshman hold up on the edge.

With Barron almost ready to return from his injury, if FSU had waited any longer to make the switch, it would have faced questions about why it was replacing a starter who had just returned from injury. If it didn't work, FSU could just put Erving back at left tackle and throw Barron back in at center.

"Ryan Hoefeld did a tremendous job inside, and Austin Barron is coming back, we got him ready," Fisher said, making sure to praise the pair that, barring injury, might not play many more snaps this season.

It was risky, but it was clearly forward looking. If it went poorly, FSU might have lost, but it wasn't winning the college football playoff with the hole at center.

"We work [Erving at Center] every Monday, and y'all always ask me 'why is he playing center?' and I'll say 'no, we're working for a rainy day, and working for the future, and we have plans, too," Jimbo Fisher said.

Those plans, if FSU gets to where it wants to go, involve the playoffs. And here is a feeling from program sources that the move, if it worked, would give FSU the size it needed on the interior to hold up against better defenses.

"It gives us a lot of size and mass and athleticism on the interior,"

"It was a blessing to have [Erving] in front of me, for him to adjust from playing left tackle to center in just one week, was amazing," Jameis Winston said.