SANTEE — Leonard Johnson long thought it would be interesting if he was offered the opportunity to coach the football program at Lake Marion High School.
He coached nearby Scott’s Branch in Summerton to two state titles, and Lake Marion is not far from the Holly Hill area where his parents grew up and some family members still live.
Well as of this off-season, Johnson is the leader of the Gators’ program, having returned to the Santee area after three seasons as head coach of the Marion High School football team in the Pee Dee region of the state.
He led Marion to a 9-4 record in 2015 as the Swamp Foxes finished in a similar position to the Gators, playing in a lower state championship game.
The Lake Marion job was vacated by Chris Carter, who is now the athletic director and head football coach at Edisto High School at Cordova.
Most football fans in the Santee area recall Johnson leading Scott’s Branch to SCHSL Class A state titles in 2008 and 2010. His previous stops also include head coaching positions at Allendale-Fairfax, Burke and Woodland.
And any South Carolina high school football fans who have paid attention know Johnson brings a “hammer” style of offense with him. It’s something that helped his two state title teams at Scott’s Branch overpower opposing defenses with strong offensive linemen and a running game that took every possible yard on each play from scrimmage.
Johnson – who most likely will be teaching history in the classroom at LMHS – knows recent history: Lake Marion won two playoff road games in 2015 before falling at eventual state champion Dillon.
He also knows that some of the returning talent he has to work with includes arguably the best player in the state in senior quarterback/safety Davondre “Tank” Robinson.
But going forward, Johnson has one main thought about Gators’ players who plan to be a part of future success in Lake Marion uniforms.
“I feel sorry for them,” Johnson said with a knowing, wise smile several times on Thursday, while sitting outside the Lake Marion weight room during a lightly attended football team workout session. “This place should be full of football players working to get stronger and get better, but we’ve got to have a conversation about that.”
The man with 44 years of coaching experience under his belt and a 2016 coaching spot on the Sandlappers team in the Shrine Bowl of the Carolinas realizes he has to see a commitment from high school athletes before he can teach them how to be successful. With the right system in place, though, Johnson has seen the results time and time again: fewer problems, higher team GPAs and a more successful program.
“You can have great athletes; but when you have a great program and can put those athletes in that program, then you’re starting to roll,” Johnson said. “You may have better athletes than the team you are facing, but you must do what it takes to become a better team.
“That’s what we are going to instill here. But it takes work, and I don’t think they understand that yet.”
On Thursday, Johnson was wearing a shirt that answered any questions about what offensive philosophy he has, as it simply read “Single Wing Football.” You can call it smash mouth or run first or whatever you choose. Johnson just knows it works when teams learn to run it as a unit.
“The biggest thing is doing the basic stuff, and I’m going to be pushing our players daily on that,” Johnson said. “You’ve got to have that line, you’ve got to find those ‘hogs’ and get them stronger and faster, because they actually can dominate a game for you. That’s the formula. We are trying to build a championship program, not just win a few games.
“We will gladly eliminate those people from the program who don’t want to be a part of improving and who don’t want to work at it. People may see you chopping off any bad limbs of the tree so that the good limbs can grow. That is necessary to change the culture and instill a great work ethic.”
Johnson admits he is more excited about getting his coaching staff in place early this month than he probably has ever been about any coaching staff at any of his stops in college or the high school ranks.
“Starting on Monday, we will go into our summer conditioning program, and as of today, we should have our coaching staff solidified,” Johnson said. “I was able to bring in people to coach who I hand-picked, knowing they are each pros at what they do.
“Everything is coming into place, and now we just have to gel and get to know each other. I’m excited and I’m excited for the kids. I still feel sorry for them, because the next four weeks are going to be grueling. But I pride myself on having teams that are the best-conditioned teams around, able to play for five quarters if it takes that.”
Although the off-season workouts will no doubt be rigorous, Johnson admits he likes what he has seen when he has recently watched game film of Lake Marion from 2015.
“Davondre is a player I hadn’t really heard about until recently,” Johnson said. “Now, having met him and watched video of him from last season, I think he may end up being the best athlete I’ve ever coached.
“I’ve coached several great players at their positions, but he is special and shows every indication that he is a great athlete.”
Johnson believes Robinson may be the first “real quarterback” he will have had in his coaching system in all of his years of football in South Carolina. He also expects to see top-level play from Robinson’s fellow rising seniors Josh Valdez at tailback and Camryn Johnson at wide receiver.
“I had my eye on this program for some time now because of the closeness of family and sentimental reasons with my mother and father growing up around here,” Johnson said. “The school just intrigued me.
“Now that I’m here, I know I’m going to have a blast. On offense we are going to find a play they can’t stop and keep running it. And on defense, we are going to find their best player and shut them down.”
Johnson is taking leadership in the Lake Marion program at a time when the school is moving into a new region and classification for the 2016-17 athletic calendar.
The Gators will be moving up in class to play in Region 7-3A along with Bishop England, Hanahan, Manning and longtime region rival Timberland.