Clay Johnston: Leading from the sidelines, in practice

Senior linebacker Clay Johnston takes down Texas tech quarterback Jett Duffey in Baylor’s 33-30 overtime win on Oct. 12 at McLane Stadium. Kristen DeHaven | Multimedia Journalist

By Jessika Harkay | Sports Writer

You have to be a different kind of leader when you serve as a captain in the Big 12 Championship and you haven’t played since October. You have to be another type of leader when you inspire from a sideline more than on the field. You also have to be a special leader when your presence alone can influence all those around you.

Despite losing his senior year to a knee injury against Texas Tech in early October, linebacker Clay Johnston has been one of the biggest defensive pieces that contributed to Baylor’s 11-2 season. Prior to his injury, the Abilene native led the team with 58 tackles, averaging 9.2 per game, in just six games.

With 237 career tackles (147 solo) and 26.5 tackles for a loss under his belt, the linebacker was on the road to surpassing career and school records, and even received second team All-Big 12 honors despite not completing the season. But Johnston’s presence wasn’t just dominant on the field; his leadership became bigger than being a defensive captain.

“I think the great thing about Clay is: Clay will still be able to lead,” head coach Matt Rhule said after the season-ending injury. “He’ll still be able to coach, he’ll still be around. All he keeps saying to me is ‘I don’t want to be a distraction.’ What kind of distraction can you be?”

A distraction is the last thing Johnston became as his teammates could account for his influence on the sideline and as a mentor.

“You have to know who Clay is,” senior long snapper and linebacker Ross Matiscik said. “He’s a goofy kind of guy. He lightens the mood a lot. He’s a great football player who knows the game inside and out. Having him help you on and off the field is important.”

The loss of the senior forced Baylor’s defensive unit to work as a team and make up for his absence. Sophomore linebacker Terrel Bernard stepped up as a starter in Johnson’s place. Since his Oct. 19 start against Oklahoma State, the sophomore tallied 77 tackles, four sacks and a forced fumble. But Rhule said Bernard’s job was not to replace Johnston — it was up to the entire unit to make up for his loss.

“The biggest thing is that Clay was going sideline to sideline and making up for a lot of other guys’ mistakes,” Rhule said. “So as I told the team: let’s not add. Terrel [Bernard]’s not going to go out there and try to replace Clay. Everyone replace Clay. You know, everyone do your job a little bit better.”

The Baylor defensive unit held their ground without their leader on the field.

Throughout the 13 games of the 2019 season, the Bears held opponents to just 129 points in the first three quarters (an average of 9.9 points.) In the Big 12 championship matchup, Baylor’s defense was able to limit Oklahoma to a season-low 433 offensive yards and Sooners’ quarterback Jalen Hurts to a season-low 38 rushing yards on 23 carries.

Johnston’s presence in the Big 12 end-of-season showdown was known too, as he was able to lead with the captains during the coin toss.

“That was huge and something we talked about all week,” Bernard said. “Clay obviously is one of our leaders. I feel so sorry for him that he couldn’t play in this game, but having him out there as a captain shows what kind of leader he is and what kind of person.”