Football: Wolf Pack’s Johnson and Marshall a formidable duo
James-Michael Johnson and Brandon Marshall go together like silver and blue, like wolf and pack like, well, a left hook and a right uppercut.
“They are always side by side, on the field, on the sideline, off the field,” said Nevada Wolf Pack defensive coordinator Andy Buh of his two senior linebackers. “You rarely see one without the other. If you see Brandon, you’ll probably see James close by.”
The unbreakable bond between the two seniors has become a running joke around the Wolf Pack football program.
“They are like an old married couple,” smiled assistant coach Ken Wilson. “You can always tell when they’ve had a little spat. One of them will come to practice with his head down and I’ll say, ‘What happened? What are you two arguing about now?'”
Johnson, from Rodriguez High in Fairfield, Calif., and Marshall, from Cimarron-Memorial High in Las Vegas, both arrived at Nevada as wide-eyed freshman full of hopes and dreams in the summer of 2007. They have been nearly inseparable ever since.
“I know everyone just expects us to be together all the time,” Marshall said. “And we are most of the time. The other day we were walking through Boomtown together. And as we were just walking around, here comes our strength coach, Matt Eck. He just looks at us and says, ‘Don’t you two ever get sick of each other?’ That was pretty funny.”
The two were born on Sundays exactly three weeks apart (Johnson on August 20, 1989 and Marshall on Sept. 10). Both were great high school athletes, both were highly motivated, neither one was afraid of hard work and both ended up at the University of Nevada just weeks before their 18th birthday in the summer of 2007.
It didn’t take long for the two alpha wolves to find each other.
“We had the same goals, the same dreams,” Johnson said. “We wanted to start as red-shirt freshmen, we wanted to play well and become great, we wanted to work hard in the weight room and push each other and we both wanted to eventually get to the NFL. I couldn’t have picked a better roommate because we always wanted the same things.”
Johnson and Marshall were simply two minds who thought like one.
“We knew even back then that we could both be great,” Johnson said. “And we were determined to work as hard as we could to get there. I knew he would push me and he knew I would push him. You need that. You need someone that is going to keep you focused and someone who is always going to help you achieve your goals.”
They moved into an off-campus apartment together back in 2008 because, well, hopes and dreams need a full-time support system.
“They were thrown in together as freshman and they’ve been together ever since,” Wilson said.
This is not some manufactured football-only relationship created just because they play the same position and are the same age. Johnson and Marshall are truly two like-minded individuals with common goals and dreams who knew immediately that there was power in unity.
“He’s just a great guy, a character guy, very humble, very caring guy,” Marshall said. “You can’t have a better roommate.”
“He’s a real fun dude, a great person,” Johnson said. “He’s got my back and I have his back. Why wouldn’t I want to be associated with someone like that?”
Why not, indeed.
The two have started on the Pack defense since their red-shirt freshman year in 2008. Johnson has 265 career tackles, 35.5 for a loss, 6.5 sacks, two interceptions, five forced fumbles, 12 passes defended and two fumble recoveries in 49 games. Marshall has 227 tackles, 33.5 for a loss, five sacks, three interceptions, 19 passes defended, three forced fumbles and six fumble recoveries in 48 games.
Want one other statistic? When both Johnson and Marshall have started in the same game, the Wolf Pack’s record is 29-12 with 27 victories in their last 33 games.
But the two linebackers are much more than just a collection of numbers over the past three-plus seasons. They have simply been the pilot and co-pilot of the Pack defense.
“I’ll tell you what, they keep me going with their love of the game and their work ethic and their thirst for knowledge,” said Buh, a former Pack linebacker who became the Pack’s defensive coordinator after the 2009 season. “They are just a couple of old salty veterans that make my job a lot easier.”
The old salty veterans are both well on their way to their best season ever. Marshall, with 70 tackles, has already broken his career high (63 last year). Johnson, with 71 tackles, is also on pace to break his career record for stops (88 in 2010) with four games left (three in regular season plus one bowl game).
“Both of them are so fundamentally sound,” said Roy, who also arrived in the summer of 2007 as a freshman. “And they play off each other so well. If James is not making the tackle, Brandon is making it and if Brandon’s not making the tackle, James is.”
Roy called Marshall and Johnson the Wolf Pack defense’s “little safety net.”
“As a defensive tackle it’s great having those two behind me because I know they’ll always have my back,” Roy said. “I can do things up front knowing that they’ll be there to make the play if I need them.”
Their rock-solid relationship off the field pays off on the field in ways you simply cannot coach.
“Anytime you play so long with someone, very little verbal communication is needed,” Buh said.
“When they play it’s mostly just looks and feel. They play off each other, like thunder and lightning.”
Thunder (Johnson) and lightning (Marshall) know they have something special on the field.
“We just have great chemistry,” Marshall said. “When we’re out there we don’t even talk all that much to each other. We don’t have to. We just have to give each other a look and sometimes it’s not even that. I can just feel where he is at all times.”
“Sometimes all we have to do is make eye contact and we both know what we’re thinking,” Johnson said.
Roy said the two linebackers make each other better, two alpha wolves who have the ability to hunt alone or in pairs.
“Brandon is real calm most of the time, like the calm before the storm,” Roy said. “James is more vocal. He likes to get everyone going. They balance each other out real well. James is the yin to Brandon’s yang.”
Yin and yang, thunder and lightning. They are different and identical all at the same time.
“Brandon is a very instinctive player, very curious all the time,” Buh said. “James is like the mad scientist out there. He’s a real student of the game.”
Their learning process began as practice squad linebackers in 2007, trying to chase down starting quarterback Colin Kaepernick and kicked in during the 2008 season when they were tossed into the starting lineup.
“It didn’t take them long to separate themselves from everybody else,” Wilson said. “We had to live with their mistakes that first year but we knew they had to be on the field.”
Both Johnson and Marshall were thrown into a tough situation in 2008. Veteran middle linebacker Josh Mauga was still around to lead the two wolf pup linebackers but the Pack still needed to replace standout linebackers Ezra Butler, Jeremy Engstrom and Kevin Porter.
And it wasn’t always smooth sailing.
“They had both just made some mistakes and we pulled them off the field,” Wilson said. “I think it was at UNLV. There they were, both side by side on the sideline, standing there pouting. They’ve come a long way since then.”
“I was just playing by instinct back then,” Marshall said. “I knew what I was doing but I really didn’t have a full understanding of what the offense was trying to do.”
“We had some tough times,” Johnson said. “But we also knew we just had to keep working and get that experience. We knew we could be great.”
They literally grew up together on and off the field.
“Most of the time we just sit there and laugh and talk about things,” said Marshall of their off-the-field life. “James is a funny guy. We just like to make jokes, talk football and talk life.
Sometimes we’ll go out but most of the time we’re just hanging out, playing video games and relaxing.”
Don’t let them fool you. It’s not all jokes and smiles.
“Oh, we’re competitors,” Johnson said. “We compete in everything.”
“He beat me once,” Marshall smiled. “That’s about it.”
Their high school careers?
“I always tell him Las Vegas has better athletes than Fairfield,” Marshall said. “I wish we would have played his school so I could have showed him.”
Marshall also has this fantasy in his mind. He’s carrying the football — he was a running back at Cimarron-Memorial — and he runs directly over Johnson.
“I tell him that all the time,” Marshall said.
Johnson just shakes his head.
“Oh, no, that’s not going to happen,” said Johnson, who at 6-foot-2, 240 pounds is an inch taller and five pounds heavier than Marshall according to the Wolf Pack depth chart said. “Never. Not going to happen. Look at how big I am. He’s not going to run me over.”
They were, however, able to bring a slice of their high school careers — they both played prep baseball — into focus recently.
“He kept telling me he was a better baseball player than me so one day we went out to the batting cages,” Johnson said. “I just told him, ‘OK, here’s your chance to prove you’re better than me.’ So we get out there and, well, he didn’t have it anymore. No. He didn’t have it anymore.”
Their most heated competition over the years, though, doesn’t involve a sport or keeping score.
“He thinks he’s a better singer than I am,” Johnson said. “He’s crazy.”
Johnson, though, will admit that Marshall has some vocal skills.
“He can carry a tune pretty well,” he said. “I’ll give him that. But I can hit the high notes better than him.”
Sounds like Thunder and Lightning might have a future singing career, you know, if this football thing doesn’t pan out.
“You never know,” Johnson said. “You never know.”
Football, sports and competition, though, are just a small part of their relationship.
“They have something real special for themselves,” Buh said. “And I’m not even talking about football. They have something special for life. Their friendship.”
“It’s not often you can find a friend that you know will always be there for you, will always have good advice for you and is always looking out for you,” Marshall said. “I trust him. I never question his judgment because I know his character. I know he has my best interest in mind.
“Our friendship is a lifetime thing. I know after this year we probably won’t be in the same city. But that doesn’t matter. We’ll always have our friendship no matter what we do or where we go in life.”