Football coaches may too often label a player "a coach's dream," but when Mark Mariakis uses the term to describe junior inside linebacker Daniel Johnson, the Ridgeland coach is quite sincere.
Johnson, a three-year starter, enters Friday night's Class AAA playoff game against Monroe Area with 129 tackles, and 80 are solo stops. It's more than that with the 5-foot-11, 205-pounder, though. His off-the-field accomplishments are enough to put him among the state's elite students.
"He's a kid you wish you had 100 of because of his work ethic, leadership and his commitment to everything he does," Mariakis said. "It's why he is so successful and will be so successful in everything he does. He's someone everybody can look at and say, 'That's the way you do things the right way.'"
In addition to being the Panthers' leader on a defensive unit that started nine new players this year, Johnson carries a 4.0 grade point average and made a 30 on the ACT, although he's not satisfied with that score and is retaking the test in December. He's been chosen for the Governor's Honors Program and is president of the junior class.
Even so, Mariakis wanted more from Johnson this season.
"You can show leadership in a lot of ways, and Daniel has always done that by example," the coach said, "but this year we were so young and inexperienced that we needed him to be more vocal, and we've seen that in the last half of the season.
"What sets him apart his how even keel he always his. He handles adversity well and he handles success well, and a lot of times kids don't know how to handle those two things."
It wasn't the easiest of transitions for Johnson, but following the team's worst performance of the season in a loss to Gilmer County, he saw a promising season getting away.
"After the Gilmer game I was really upset," Johnson said. "It finally sank in that I couldn't just sit back anymore. I had to make a change on the team. Things started to come around the Dalton game, and we played well enough to win that game. After that, the ball started rolling and we started being successful."
Johnson isn't satisfied with the team's 6-4 record, but after analyzing the year (it's what he does), he understands the growth gained this season will pay off next year for a team that will bring back a great deal of experience.
"I think this season is successful, win or lose Friday, because we've shown how we can handle adversity and it will only help us next season," said Johnson, who also plays baseball. "To be honest I thought we would go undefeated and win the region championship, because I saw the talent we had around us. Then reality set in and I saw how young we were. Still, I'm very proud of what we've accomplished."
While the Panthers' future is bright, it pales in comparison to Johnson's. He wants to continue to play football in college, but he'll likely be doing it at Sewanee or Rhodes, esteemed NCAA Division III academic institutions. It's a path that makes the father in Mariakis smile.
"The great thing about Daniel is, no matter what you see him doing, you're seeing the best he's got, and I know that won't change in the future," Mariakis said. "That's all you can ask of someone."
Contact Lindsey Young at email@example.com or at 423-757-6296.