CLEARWATER — Middle linebackers have cat-like quickness and often are the stabilizing force of a defense. They eat indecisive quarterbacks for breakfast, devour running backs for lunch and gorge on receivers for dinner.
And no one displays those traits better than Terry Johnson.
As part of the middle linebacking fraternity, the Countryside senior lives in a world where collisions are embraced, where hitting is a form of chatting. It is a jittery place of easy provocation and swift retribution.
"It's an important position, and Terry is one of the best," Cougars coach Jared Davis said. "The middle linebacker is like the carburetor for the engine. Terry has to be that guy. He has to get us going."
Johnson flies to the ball. He leads Countryside in tackles with 67 (50 solo) and has a sack, an interception and two forced fumbles.
And to think, Johnson has played the position on a full-time basis for just the past two seasons.
"The coaches put me there last year because they thought that was my best position for college," Johnson said.
Johnson is blessed with range and versatility. More than just a rugged run-stopper, he can drop back deep into the secondary on passing downs. He is at the nerve center of the county's top defense and will be counted on to lead his team in Friday's Class 5A region final against Plant.
"Terry will definitely have a big role in this game," Davis said.
The Panthers, the two-time defending state champion, have scored at least 30 points in each of their past six games, including a combined 97 in playoff victories over Plant City and Newsome the past two weeks.
Plant has been successful with a balanced attack that is averaging 233 yards passing and 194 rushing.
"We can't key on any one thing," Johnson said. "We have to stay disciplined and tackle well."
Johnson will do that by exhibiting all of his extraordinary traits: a swifter takeoff than a 747, a vertical leap to rival a trampoline champ and the power on contact to cause an opponent he's aiming for to vibrate like a jackhammer.
But his hitting will not be limited to defense. Johnson also will get some carries as a back to gain the tough yards between the tackles.
"I know I'll have to play on both sides of the ball," Johnson said. "I've done that my whole life. I'm just trying to do whatever it takes to win. We're confident. We just have to eliminate the mistakes to move on."