Former minor-league baseball player Tripper Johnson started last season, but will likely be a reserve
The 27-year-old is recovering from knee injury and mostly working with third-team members in the secondary
Seattle Times staff reporter
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Tripper Johnson was the feel-good story of Washington's fall camp a year ago, a former minor-league baseball star who returned to college to fulfill a lifelong dream.
Then the season began and it was tempting to wonder if Johnson wasn't a poster child for being careful about getting what you wish for.
Rushed into the starting lineup at safety when injuries hit the position hard, Johnson — who had played eight years of minor-league baseball before hanging up the glove to return to UW as a walk-on — struggled along with the rest of UW's secondary as the Huskies limped through a school-worst 0-12 season.
"I played a lot more than I thought I was going to last year," he said. "My goal for last year was just to get on the field any way I can. Then we had some guys get hurt. Darin Harris went down, Jason Wells went down."
So did Victor Aiyewa.
And that meant that much of the season, Johnson — who hadn't played a football game since the fall of 1999 when he was a senior at Newport High — was one of the only safeties left standing.
So a guy who had thought he'd be able to ease back into football instead found himself starting seven games, including the opener at Oregon.
Still, he doesn't regret a second of it.
"Even though we went 0-12 last year, I had fun playing again," he said. He still is.
Now back for his senior season, Johnson is also back in the role that is more along the lines of what he realistically expected to have last year — working as a reserve safety and a regular on special teams, particularly kickoff and punt coverage.
"Whatever my role is this year, whether it's special teams or a reserve guy or a starter, I'd just like to get some wins," he said. "So I'll do whatever to help the team."
His efforts to impress his new coaches weren't helped when he suffered a knee injury during practice the week of the last game of the season against Cal — which went relatively unnoticed with most of the attention focused on the pending coaching turnover from Tyrone Willingham to Steve Sarkisian. He was limited most of the spring while still recovering from what he said was a sprain to the popliteus muscle at the back of the knee.
"It feels good now, but it took a while to get over that," he said. "I couldn't do a lot of running and conditioning and stuff like that."
By the time he returned, the new coaching staff had gotten a good look at guys like redshirt freshman Greg Walker and Aiyewa and converted receiver Alvin Logan, and Johnson was not on the two-deep depth chart when fall camp began.
He's still not, usually running with the threes, though that doesn't mean he won't have a role this season.
Safeties coach Jeff Mills says Johnson has "a great understanding" of both the free safety and strong safety positions, a versatility that puts him in position to play either spot should the need arise.
"He provides leadership," Mills said. "He's an older guy and he understands and he does have the maturity that some of the younger guys need to look to."
Johnson is now 27 and potentially in his last year of college. He's listed as a senior but says there's a chance he could return for another season.
"I'm going to play this year and then evaluate my situation," he said. "I'm kind of in a different situation as everyone else."
Not just his teammates, but also a lot of his friends, for whom college is becoming a distant memory.
"It's been a great experience," he said. "I don't know too many people who get to go play baseball for a while and then come back and play football. All my friends still tell me they'd love to do it and they wish they were doing it right now instead of working. So it's been great."
Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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