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October 16, 2012Tristian Johnson didn't have time to do anything but react. He grabbed the ball and ran as fast as he could to the end zone, scoring a rare defensive touchdown.
Johnson, a junior defensive tackle at Kentucky, scored a couple of defensive touchdowns during his days at LaGrange (Ga.) High School. The most memorable one, however, came with La Grange on the road in the state playoffs, trailing in the second half.
"We were down by four points and the ball was on the ground," Johnson said. "I picked it up, scooped and scored. It put us ahead and we won. I was so excited that I couldn't even think of nothing to do so I just ran all the way back to my sidelines, a straight-up sprint back to my teammates. There was no celebration, I just celebrated with my teammates the whole time."
Scoring a touchdown is a dream for any defensive player, but especially so for defensive linemen. They're the faceless bodies at the bottom of the pile. Most of them don't accumulate flashy stats, and they don't have the star power of many of their offensive teammates.
On the rare occasion when they score, it's special.
"That's the greatest thing for a defensive linemen, because you don't hardly get your name in the paper unless it's something bad," defensive line coach David Turner said. "That's great for those guys. Defensive backs, they get a chance to intercept balls and hopefully we can affect that, and a linebacker is the same thing.
"But a defensive linemen getting an interception or recovering a fumble, and having a chance to scoop and score, that's a unique deal."
The week after Johnson scored his touchdown, he turned on the TV to watch Steve Pardue's coaching show. Pardue, then the head coach at LaGrange and now Kentucky's running backs coach, was poking fun at Johnson for his celebration.
"I used to get on them because when a guy who doesn't score, a lot of times when they do score, they've thought about what they're going to do their entire life," Pardue said. "Then they go blank. All they can do is go off and run around the field."
That's exactly what happened to Johnson. In the moment, he couldn't think of anything to do other than run back to the sidelines with his teammates.
But if he ever finds the end zone again, he has a plan.
"If that ever happened to me, I would love to do the Lambeau Leap inside Commonwealth with the fans," Johnson said, referring to a celebration in which a player jumps into the stands to mingle with fans." I'd turn around and get a bunch of Facebook and Twitter pictures, Instagram That's just a dream for me."
Junior defensive tackle Donte Rumph hasn't scored a touchdown in his entire career playing organized football. He dreams about scoring a touchdown the same as any defensive lineman, but his dreams end when he crosses the goal line. He doesn't have a special touchdown dance if he ever scores.
"I don't really have a celebration," Rumph said. "I'd just celebrate with my teammates. That's every big guy's dream. I'm just waiting on the opportunity so I could take advantage of it."
That's probably just as well. While scoring a touchdown is a dream, a celebration can draw a 15-yard penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct, along with the ire of coaches.
NCAA rules prohibit "any delayed, excessive, prolonged or choreographed act by which a player (or players) attempts to focus attention upon himself." The player is also required to return the ball to the official promptly, or leave it at the dead ball spot.
Turner understands that a defensive lineman would want to celebrate, but he doesn't want his players drawing a penalty for going too far.
"Hand the ball (to the official) and get with your teammates and celebrate," Turner said. "You don't need to do anything to draw attention to yourself. That's what the rule is for. You don't need to get a 15-yard penalty for something that's selfish."
Other coaches have a different idea. Pardue understood that on rare occasions when a defensive player scored, they might react differently than offensive players. He tells his running backs to 'act like they've been there before' when scoring a touchdown, but it's different for defensive linemen.
After all, most of them haven't been there before.
"Honestly, I probably would understand a little bit," he said. "I used to tell some of my kids that if they scored, I'd get a 15-yard penalty."
Pardue would have been fine with some extra celebration, under a few conditions. He didn't want players being flagged for celebration if a penalty could affect the outcome of the game, first and foremost. He also didn't want the celebration to be in poor taste. In some situations, Pardue said, officials understand that a defensive player will have a stronger reaction after scoring than an offensive player.
Turner, who has been UK's defensive line coach since the 2010 season, couldn't recall the last time he had a lineman score a touchdown. The Wildcats haven't had a defensive lineman score a touchdown since Ventrell Jenkins did it in the Liberty Bowl following the 2008 season, when Johnson was still in high school.
There just aren't that many chances. Defensive tackle Luke McDermott had two interceptions in his final two years, but didn't take either one back for a score.
"We always work on fumble drills, tip drills," Turner said. "If something happens once a year or once every couple years, you try to be prepared for it because it's an opportunity."
It's an opportunity Johnson is waiting for. If that day ever comes, he'll be ready.
"I'd probably get hit with every flag inside Commonwealth that day," Johnson said.