Hard work paying off for CU Buffs Austin Johnson The Denver Post

Austin Johnson’s time is finally here.

While Friday’s season opener didn’t go well for the Colorado football team, the 38-13 loss to TCU provided a significant personal moment for Johnson, who started for the Buffaloes at center and also played some snaps at right guard.

“It was great, man,” the 6-foot-4, 300-pound offensive lineman said. “It was a dream come true. It was a lot of hard work that paid off, but it’s just the start.”

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A fourth-year sophomore, Johnson was in the starting lineup Friday for the first time since 2018 — his senior year at Highlands Ranch High School. He is also a projected starter for Saturday’s visit to Air Force (1:30 p.m., TV: CBS).

Since coming to CU in 2019, Johnson has not only had to bide his time and learn, but deal with adversity. Nicknamed “Big Salsa,” he missed the 2020 season with a ruptured Achilles’ tendon and has dealt with other injuries along the way.

Johnson played a total of 26 offensive snaps during his first three seasons at CU. Against TCU, he played 56 snaps.

“I knew I was gonna be a little nervous going into the game, of course,” he said. “It was more kind of a confidence thing, trying to see where I’m at and really see, like. I belong. If I can block the nose from TCU, then I can block a lot of noses in the (Pac-12). It was more just a confidence booster and you just gotta go.”

While Johnson got the start at center, he rotated with Noah Fenske. Generally, when Fenske went to center, Johnson shifted over to right guard. Tommy Brown played the bulk of the game at right guard.

“I felt good,” Johnson said. “In high school, I played right guard and then transferred to center when I got here. I was comfortable with either.”

Johnson handled snaps on 41 of CU’s 70 offensive plays and said his snaps were “all right.”

“Some of them could have been better, of course, but (it was) first game nerves, getting into it,” he said. “For the most part, I’m glad I didn’t have a bad snap.”

Throughout the offseason, Johnson and Fenske battled for the job at center. Johnson also played quite a bit at guard with Brown injured during fall camp. Brown returned to practice two weeks ago, but head coach Karl Dorrell said competition could keep that group rotating.

“We feel like our guards and centers, we have guys that are very similar in talent,” Dorrell said. “We want to continue to bring along and use that versatility inside. So that’s part of the reason why we still do that.”

Dorrell thought the line had good continuity Friday, despite the rotation, and Johnson agreed.

“When you needed a break, there’s a guy who can go in for you now,” he said. “I thought it was good. I thought it worked out pretty well. We all love each other and we all want everyone in the room to do well. So when another guy has an opportunity to go do well, you’ve just got to support.”

Johnson is now eager to continue his progression and he’s excited to play at the Air Force Academy this week.

“I grew up going to the games down there,” he said. “It’ll be cool. I’m excited – and I know a lot of the players on the team.”

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