September 13, 2018 10:38:06 AM
The contents of this article have been modified since its original posting.
STARKVILLE -- Most of Marcus Johnson's football existence involves David Cutcliffe. Johnson watched his older brother play for Cutcliffe for two years before playing for him for five at Ole Miss; then Cutcliffe gave Johnson his start in coaching. Johnson rewarded him with seven years of his service, watching him climb up from assistant strength and conditioning coach to quality control to offensive line coach.
After it all, Johnson wanted more in his portfolio. He wanted to take in a new approach and see how his style adapted to something new. He's trying that as Mississippi State's offensive line coach; through two games, the results are good.
Johnson's first season on the Joe Moorhead staff has seen his offensive line clear the way for 7.95 yards per carry 302 yards per game, including a particularly dominant 9.85 yards per carry against Kansas State. Moorhead is confident he will get more of the same 6:30 p.m. Saturday (SEC Network Alternate) against Louisiana-Lafayette (1-0).
"He did it at the highest level professionally and collegiately and he can fall back on those experiences as a coach," Moorhead said. "I think one of the best things Coach Johnson is doing now is playing with a demeanor, playing through the echo of the whistle."
That is just one part of the Cutcliffe way that Johnson's found translates well to Moorhead's organization.
When Johnson got to know his new boss and how his new program would be run, he found all the things Cutcliffe taught him applied. Ole Miss coach Matt Luke -- another Cutcliffe disciple -- said on the Southeastern Conference teleconference the Cutcliffe way is based in the little things, all the small aspects of programs being built in a sustainable way that ultimately build to consistent quality.
It's a particularly useful approach for offensive linemen, where details as small as minor footwork adjustments or a matter of inches on hand placement can be the difference in success and failure. Those facts are not lost on Johnson -- and his players.
"He emphasizes the technique, he makes sure in team and scouting period that we're good with the scheme," center Elgton Jenkins said.
Another part of the Cutcliffe way is how those messages are delivered.
"Coaching and teaching the details, showing guys versus just yelling and hollering at them. It's getting guys better, showing them what you want them to do," Johnson said. "Me personally, I don't like to clinic talk the guys; if it's something that I haven't done, I really don't believe in it. If I'm coaching it, it's things I've experienced in my past.
"It's not like those guys want to go out there and fail, it's not like they're trying to screw up. Most players aim to please coaches. They know they screwed up and there's already enough stress in their minds. The thing with staying with Coach (Cutcliffe) was staying poised, staying calm and staying poised. Somebody's got to be able to take a deep breath and think about the situation and what's going on."
That approach is just what Moorhead wants in a coach.
"We want them to be teachers, we want them to be educators, and he's been doing a great job of communicating with our players, learning what motivates them," Moorhead said.
That background is why Moorhead was interested in making a play for Johnson. Johnson said he got the call from MSU while he was on the road recruiting for Duke. Running backs coach Charles Huff reached out to gauge his interest; Johnson's first thought was how it would be good to return to his home state and his family that still lives here. Moorhead was in touch later that night.
The hours to follow presented Johnson with a difficult decision. He acknowledges it was not easy to leave the man that has given him a shot at every level: first as a player then in any role in a college football program before a shot to coach in one. Even as he branches out to learn other ways of winning, he will always bring a Cutcliffe style to the table.
"As far as college football, everything I know comes from him," Johnson said. "I feel like I grew so much and knew almost everything he knew because he taught me everything I know.
"At some point there comes a time to leave the nest and continue to grow. That's the only way I know to grow in life, to get out of your comfort zone. TO me, the more tools you can put in your toolbox, why not?"
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson
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