Inky Johnson has already left a lasting impression on so many at the University of Tennessee. Turns out the former Vols cornerback-turned-coach is pretty good at first impressions, too.
In just a few short months, Johnson won over Tennessee's new coaching staff and landed a spot as a graduate assistant coach this season under defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin - the same guy who hired a young Pete Carroll as his defensive GA at Arkansas in the 1970s.
"It's a blessing," Johnson said Thursday. "It's a great opportunity just to be around those guys. You learn so much from them every day."
The focus for Johnson, who spent last season as a student assistant coach, is to soak up as much as possible this season from UT's new coaching staff. This year, he'll not only be able to give on-field coaching, he'll be allowed to sit in on meetings and help dissect film. Though he'll be working primarily with defense, Johnson he wants to absorb as much as he can about all facets of the game in his first real coaching job.
But Johnson has already doled out plenty of inspiration.
After suffering a severe injury to his right arm during the second game of his junior season in 2006, he's undergone several surgeries to repair nerve and muscle damage. He still follows a physical therapy regimen every day to improve his movement and strength.
Later this month, he'll return to the Mayo Clinic for another follow-up appointment. Johnson still wears a sling on his right arm, but that belies the amount of physical progress he's made some 2 1/2 years later.
"My arm is doing good," Johnson said, smiling. "It's still a slow process. I'm getting stronger, I'm getting movement back. It's way better than before. God's just healing my body every day, like I said from the beginning. I know in the end, I'm going to be all right."
Johnson, who started eight games during his UT career, didn't take long to adjust, and he gives much of the credit for his positive attitude to his family and his faith.
That attitude is readily apparent in his response to a question about the last two years. If the answer came from anyone else, though, it would be a bit unexpected.
"It's just been a great experience," Johnson says. "God has blessed me to wake up every day and enjoy life, and so I'm making the most of it."
His former teammates and coaches, though, will tell you that's just Inky.
Hand him a pile of lemons, and he won't just make lemonade. He'll whip up a lemon merengue pie and anything else you can think of.
Limit the use of his right arm and hand, and he'll keep on smiling and shake your left hand instead.
Give him a chance to learn from a coach like Monte Kiffin and his staff, and who knows how far he'll go.
"Every chance I get to get up there on that board and learn some plays or get in that playbook and learn some plays or break down film with those guys and learn something new, I take heed to it," he says. "It's a great opportunity."
It will be yet another opportunity for UT's players to learn from Johnson, too.
Defensive end Robert Ayers shed his reputation as a trouble-maker during his first few years on campus to become a team captain and first-team All-SEC selection as a senior. In April, Ayers will likely be the first UT player taken in the NFL draft.
During SEC Media Days last summer, Ayers credited Johnson for much of his turnaround both on the field and off.
"He's a special person," said Ayers, who also roomed with Johnson last year. "He's an inspiration for all of us to want to do good."
He certainly can do some good this season.
Already a trusted mentor to many of UT's players, especially on defense, Johnson could prove to be useful ally as first-year UT coach Lane Kiffin tries to get players to buy into a new way of doing things.
"I think I can help them out a lot," Johnson says. "If you don't believe in what you're doing, you won't accomplish anything. You've got to believe in what you're doing to get something done. The guys know that."
And as for Lane Kiffin, it didn't take long to learn what many around UT's program have known about Johnson for a long time.
"This guy's unbelievable," Kiffin said. "To talk about what we want to be as a team - you're always competing, you're always fighting - what a great example. Not one day does he come around complaining about his arm. Everything's about what he can do.
"I'm so glad that he's representing us."
Drew Edwards covers University of Tennessee football. He may be reached at 865-342-6274.