"Most guys see Matt having such a good time out there, and the underclassmen see how hard he works," linebackers coach Carter Conley said. "He has a lot of fun, and he works really hard."
Johnson was rewarded for that hard work last year when he was named to the all-SCAC first team after racking up 112 tackles and three interceptions.
He said his position, middle linebacker, lends itself to leadership and to high tackle totals.
"It's fun because you're in on a lot of plays," Johnson said.
Johnson was a force last fall in part because he did his homework the previous spring. Through numerous film study sessions on his own and with Centre's coaches, he developed a better understanding of his position.
"That really helped me with my reads," he said.
Between last season and this season came another winter and spring in the weight room, and Conley said Johnson's dedication has been noted by coaches and teammates alike.
"What he's done the best at in the offseason is becoming a leader on the team," Conley said.
As he settled into two-a-day practices last week after returning to school, Johnson said he's far more comfortable now than he was this time a year ago.
"This year coming back, it seems like everything is kind of second nature now," he said.
Couldn't wait to get back to Centre
Coming back to Centre is something Johnson said he couldn't wait to do. His summer days were spent working for his father's landscaping business in Ashland, and he worked out vigorously in the evenings.
But he couldn't wait to get back to school, back to the camaraderie of the team, back to the apartment he shares with five teammates and best friends. And back to football.
"This is where you want to be," he said.
Centre faces its first competition Saturday when the Colonels scrimmage Hanover at Farris Stadium, and it opens the regular season there a week later against Bluffton. Johnson said the defense, which returns seven starters, feels it has something to prove this fall after ranking fifth in the SCAC in total defense and last against the run last season.
"Last year we had good teamwork on defense, and we've got just about everybody coming back," he said. "We think we have the talent; it's all up to the will."
Conley said Johnson's drive was evident in Centre's first game last season, when he made a play that Conley said was a turning point.
It was a fourth-down play in the Colonels' 27-20 win over Bluffton, when Johnson stepped up to stop a running back short of the first-down marker.
"Matt put it into an extra gear to stop him on fourth down," Conley said. "That was something that stood out to the staff and to the other players, that when the chips are down this is a guy we can count on."
Recruited as defensive end
Conley said Johnson's ability to make plays like that are why he was moved from defensive end, the position he was recruited for.
Johnson said he played some linebacker in high school, but he primarily played defensive end at Ashland Blazer.
He also played running back, wearing No. 33. That number was taken when he got to Centre, so he took 32.
Most of the other linebackers on the team have numbers in the 40s and 50s, and defensive ends are even higher on the roster, but Johnson has no inclination to change.
"I like the low numbers," he said.
The high numbers can be found on the stat sheet, where Johnson had 15 more tackles than the second-ranked player in the SCAC.
He said it was nice to lead the league and be recognized on the all-conference team, but he said the lofty tackle total is largely a function of the position he plays.
"I'm just pretty much doing my job," he said. "If I'm doing my job, the numbers will come."