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Swede dreams

Apr. 07, 2013 @ 12:04 AM

HUNTINGTON -- As Kevin Grooms hit the left side of the hole and raced into the secondary during a recent Marshall University spring football practice, a chant started coming from the sideline as teammates watched.

That chant?

"Sweeeeeeede!"

It was for offensive lineman Sebastian Johansson, who is seeing time with the first-team offensive line this spring.

The 6-foot-5, 282-pound native of Sweden -- affectionately nicknamed "Big Swede" by teammates -- brings an instant toughness factor to the offensive line.

"He dislocated one of his fingers on Friday on his right hand and (Tuesday), in one-on-one passing drills, dislocated a finger on his left hand and he's still out there playing the whole time," Marshall offensive line coach Alex Mirabal said. "To me, that toughness, along with that amount of athleticism, and along with a tremendous amount of care of becoming a better player, he's earned it. I didn't give him anything. He earned it."

While Johansson's play and toughness has been impressive, it all pales in comparison to the road he took getting to NCAA Division I football.

It is a road that brought him from Europe to the Tri-State, back to Europe and then back to Marshall.

Johansson started playing American football in Sweden at age 11 and later played for a club team called the Carlstad Crusaders, which he had played for since he was 13. His skill level was such that he was invited to play for Team Sweden in the IFAF World Football Championships in Canton, Ohio, in 2009 -- the same as former Marshall wide receiver Aaron Dobson.

After the experience, Johansson chose to come to the United States through an international exchange program and he landed nearly in Marshall's backyard, playing his junior year of high school at Raceland.

During Johansson's year with the Rams, Raceland went 12-1 and advanced to the regional finals in Kentucky's Class 1A.

The nuances of the game here in the United States intrigued Johansson, who said everything was completely different.

Just how different was it for him?

"I didn't have a coach when I was back in Sweden," Johansson said. "The first time I had a coach was when I was at Raceland."

That season at Raceland got him on the radar of former Marshall assistant Phil Ratliff, but Johansson had to travel back to Sweden for his senior year to finish his diploma work.

He left the United States with no guarantees of college nor any guarantees of American football -- something that left him unsettled.

"To be honest, I was hoping (to play football in America) but I didn't know," Johansson said. "You're always hoping and you try to get in contact with people as best you can. I had some friends down at Raceland who helped me out a little bit and it worked out fine."

After a redshirt year, Johansson spent much of his freshman year in 2012 continuing his education of the game -- something he said has been critical to his success this spring.

"Finally, the puzzle pieces are falling into place," Johansson said. "I've started understanding the offense more and more. Instead of just knowing my position, I see the whole picture now. I'm a visual learner, so it just took some time for me."

Given that he never had a coach in Sweden, Johansson said he couldn't be happier than learning under Mirabal.

"He's a fresh breeze in the O-line room," Johansson said. "It's a whole lot of fun to be in the same room as him and you trust him 110 percent, which is extremely important."

Under Mirabal's tutelage, Johansson expects to continue to pick up the offense and grow each day with the offensive line.

Mirabal said Johansson's willingness to learn and ability to seize opportunities is his biggest asset and he's done exactly that this spring.

"He's taken advantage of it," Mirabal said. "When someone taps you on the shoulder and says 'Hey, it's your turn.' Are you ready to take advantage of that? Sebastian has been, so we're just going to ride it."

The hope is that Johansson's strong spring translates into the fall and he is part of a solid Herd contingent along the offensive front this season.

Mirabal said he wants to create consistency along the front, and Johansson's presence with the first team O-line right now bodes well for the redshirt sophomore.

Given where Johansson has come from to earn a place on the offensive line, he doesn't plan on relinquishing his spot.

He's envisioned running out of that tunnel and starting when the Herd takes on Miami (Ohio) on Aug. 31.

For Johansson, that's a Swede dream.

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