Ed Johnson making his mark

CHARLOTTE – It's hard to imagine now, looking at his massive 296-pound frame, but Panthers defensive tackle Ed Johnson played basketball – and small forward at that -- in high school.

Basketball was Johnson's first love, and the Detroit native is fired up that he's just blocks away from an NBA arena his beloved Pistons will visit and a couple of hours away from college basketball's epicenter.

"I love college basketball and the NBA," Johnson said. "I can't wait for hoops season to start."

That, however, is far from the primary reason that Johnson is thankful to be a Carolina Panther.

"I'm very, very grateful for this opportunity. Not everybody gets this opportunity," Johnson said. "I'm definitely grateful and am trying to make the most of it."

Johnson never doubted his NFL career would resume after the Indianapolis Colts cut him for a second time last October – "I just put it in God's hands," he said – but there was cause for concern.

Johnson, whose off-the-field troubles at Penn State contributed to him going undrafted in 2007, was signed as a free agent by the Colts and started every game as rookie.

Off-the-field issues, however, cropped up again in 2008, and the Colts waived him after one game. No NFL team took a chance on him the rest of the season.

The Colts re-signed him in the offseason but cut him five games into the season, and again no team picked him up until the Panthers signed him in February.

"I was a younger guy, and I had to grow up a lot," Johnson said. "You learn from everything in life, good or bad. You have to learn from every situation you go through."

Now in Carolina, Johnson is re-learning how to be the player he was as a rookie, when he quickly established himself as the Colts' top run stopper with 63 tackles to earn all-rookie accolades.

"I definitely haven't played my best," said Johnson, who has started all five of Carolina's games, collecting 11 tackles. "I'm hard on myself about that, just trying to get back to where I was.

"While everybody was working and getting better, I wasn't able to compete. I do have to catch up. If you're not able to do what you do best on a regular basis, it's like a tool in a toolbox going to waste."

Despite his self-critique, Johnson has made a mark early on for the Panthers. In their last game, with the Chicago Bears a single yard away from taking a 21-point lead in the first quarter, Johnson came up with his first interception since high school.

The play served to totally turn around the defense following a shaky start.

"As I'm catching it, I'm thinking, 'To the house,' " said Johnson, noting that he had returned all of his half-dozen or so interceptions pre-Penn State for touchdowns. "I'm thinking 99 yards – until I catch it and somebody grabs my leg.

"It was very exciting. I was just happy that I could do something to change the tide of the game."

The Panthers didn't sign Johnson to pick off passes, but they do hope he can continue to change games as he tries to make the most of his second chance.

"I'm starting to have a comfort level now, and it feels good to have that," Johnson said. "It came slowly, but I'm glad to be feeling that way."

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