Playmakers 2023: Gators’ ‘unicorn’ Demarcus Johnson anchors the defense
Published 2:00 pm Monday, August 21, 2023
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story appears in “Playmakers,” The Vicksburg Post’s annual football preview magazine. The 2023 edition will be available with The Post’s weekend print edition on Aug. 19. You can also get a copy by visiting our office at 1106 Washington St., or by calling 601-636-4545.
From the first time he saw Demarcus Johnson play football, as a member of the Vicksburg Packers youth team, Christopher Lacey was impressed.
“He was probably one of the most dominant peewee players I ever saw in my life,” Lacey said.
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A couple years later, when Lacey was coaching at Vicksburg Junior High and then Vicksburg High School, Johnson joined the team and nothing had changed.
“He’s been the most dominant player on his team as a seventh-grader, eighth-grader. He came up here in ninth grade and was the most dominant player then,” said Lacey, who is heading into his first season as Vicksburg’s head coach.
Johnson is a senior now, and still nothing has changed.
The lineman has registered 23 sacks and 40 tackles for loss the past two seasons and been in the starting lineup for three. He won The Vicksburg Post’s Warren County Defensive Player of the Year award in 2022 while leading the Gators to the Class 5A semifinals for the first time since 2001, and to their first region championship since 1990.
In other words, he’s continued to dominate and is showing no signs of slowing down.
“Since I’ve been knowing him he’s been the best player all the time on the team. That has a lot to do with talent, of couse, but he works hard,” Lacey said. “He doesn’t forget plays, doesn’t make a lot of mistakes. He’s a leader. He’s a pit bull. Sometimes he’ll tell me, ‘Coach Lacey call this play and I’ll go make a play.’ He’s just an all-around football player.”
Lacey described Johnson as “a unicorn” for his particular set of skills. The 6 foot, 215-pounder is equally adept at bull rushing offensive linemen as he is running around them. He has enough speed to drop back and play linebacker on occasion. Last season, he even saw some playing time on the offensive line.
What really makes Johnson stand out, however, and what makes coaches praise him so highly, is his intelligence. Johnson has worked hard to notice small tells that opponents have — a certain stance, hand movement or twitch, for example — that give away a play and allow him to gain an extra advantage.
“The little things made me better. They’re going to set you apart from different people,” Johnson said. “(Lacey has) been installing that in us since junior high. You can tell how the linemen line up (what they’ll do), so we pay attention to stuff like that to make us better players.”
Another unicorn-like trait that Johnson takes pride in is his status as a four-year starter. He broke into the lineup halfway through his freshman year and never left. His play was a big part of a VHS defense that held opponents to seven points or less in 12 of their last 25 games.
“I take pride in it, because I don’t know if I was the first one or one of the first ones but a lot of people haven’t done it,” Johnson said.
Strangely, the one knock on Johnson seems to be one of the things that makes him so versatile — his size. He’s on the small side for a lineman at the college level.
Johnson has scholarship offers from Alcorn State and several of Mississippi’s junior colleges but has yet to attract the kind of attention from bigger Division I schools that might be expected of someone with his impressive resume.
Johnson has tried to push aside any negative perceptions by being the best he can be in all facets. As a senior, he said, he’s trying to be a more vocal leader this year. As a force on the defense, he’s constantly trying to refine and improve his skills.
“It used to (bother me), but now I’m just going to keep working,” Johnson said. “If they want you, they’re going to come get you. At the end of the day, just work for it.”
Johnson added that he tries to look at his size as a positive. He figures it allows coaches — both Vicksburg’s and whatever college he ends up — to use him in different ways.
“With my size they can put me at a lot of stuff,” Johnson said. “I can be versatile, and I look forward to doing stuff like that. Helping the team any way I can.”
His head coach seemed to take the snubs more personally than Johnson. Lacey offered a fiery defense of his star defender.
“If all you’ve got to say about him is his height, then you’re not doing a very good job of evaluating,” Lacey said. “A football player is a football player. If he’s whupping four- and five-star offensive tackles that you were recruiting, what makes you think that he can’t do that at that level?
“I think he’s one of the top two defensive players in Mississippi. Period.”
If Johnson plays like that, then Vicksburg might be one of the top two teams in Mississippi. The Gators won 10 games last season, the first time they’d done that since 2001, and have their sights set on another deep run — and possibly a state championship — this year.
“I feel like we can go deep in the playoffs. It’s a good year, good team,” Johnson said. “We’ve got players coming back with more knowledge, so I feel like we’re going to do good this year.”
Johnson added that he’s embracing all of the responsibility that’s on his shoulders as a top player, senior leader, and experienced veteran on the defense.
“Be more of a vocal leader. Lead my team the right way, tell them what to do and be a motivational speaker,” he said. “It’s more responsibility. I feel like I should carry the team a little bit more and have a different standard.”
2023 Vicksburg High schedule
All games start at 7:30 p.m. unless noted
Aug. 25 — r-Holmes County Central, 8 p.m.
Sept. 1 — Forest Hill
Sept. 8 — at Natchez
Sept. 15 — at Terry
Sept. 22 — Yazoo City
Sept. 29 — Open date
Oct. 6 — *at Neshoba Central
Oct. 13 — *at Warren Central
Oct. 20 — *Callaway
Oct. 2 — *at Columbus
Nov. 3 — *Ridgeland
r-Red Carpet Bowl, at Vicksburg High; tickets available through GoFan.co
*MHSAA Region 2-6A games