Johnson, Fowler Lead Merrimack Football into New Season

Merrimack College football coach John Perry will count on two Lynn players to lead his team’s defense in the 2011 season.

Tony Johnson, a 6-feet-3, 240-pound senior defensive end from Lynn Classical, and Jesse Fowler, a 5-feet-11-inch junior from Lynn English, are returning starters for the Warriors’ defensive unit.

Johnson, who was elected a captain by his teammates, is coming off a superb junior campaign in which he was named the Northeast-10 Conference defensive lineman of the year and All-Conference First Team. He is starting to attract the attention of pro scouts, having been named a pre-season All-American by Consensus Draft Services.

What’s it like being a captain of your college football team?

“It’s a great honor to be a captain and the other two captains and I have been working hard getting ready for the season,” said Johnson. “I’m trying to help out the freshmen because I remember the help I got from the seniors and the upperclassmen.”

Merrimack, 4-6 a year ago, is ranked third in the Northeast-10 pre-season poll. “That ranking motivates us a lot because we think we’re think one of the better teams in this conference but New Haven and Southern Connecticut are both really good teams.”

Johnson, who played four seasons at Classical under former Rams coach Matt Durgin, has become one of New England’s top defensive players while at Merrimack. He led the league in quarterback sacks last year and is the school’s all-time record holder with 28.5.

“I’ve gotten bigger, stronger, and faster in college football,” said Johnson, who wears No. 24 on his jersey, the same number he had at Classical. “I’m making good decisions during the game and I’ve matured as a player as well.”

Johnson was asked about his professional football prospects. Danny Woodhead, a running back for the New England Patriots, has inspired the pro prospects of Division 2 players nationwide.

“It’s my rear view – I’m trying to stay focused on this year, though,” said Johnson. “If I do well this year, maybe I’ll get a chance.”

Johnson said he’s grateful to Matt Durgin for the training and instruction he received as a high school player. “Mr. Durgin is one of the best coaches I ever had,” said Johnson. “He set me up to become a very accomplished player and a lot of what I’ve done goes to him.”

He’s happy with his decision to travel the short distance from Lynn to North Andover, home to Merrimack.

“It’s been a great place to play football and get an education,” said Johnson. “Coach Perry is a great coach. He knows how to recruit and he’s brought in players who want to win. Merrimack is a very good school and place to succeed.”

Fowler was a starting quarterback and wide receiver at English for four years under head coaches Gary Molea and Peter Holey (senior year). “Both my high school coaches were great and really helped me become a better football player,” said Fowler. “

Fowler has made the transition to the cornerback position at Merrimack.

“My whole first year was a transition to defensive back because I didn’t play any defense at all in high school,” said Fowler, an Economics and Mathematics major. “I’m getting all the techniques down and I feel like more of a defensive player. And this year I feel like more of an a leader because I’m an upperclassman and one of the returning d-backs.”

Fowler said he and Johnson have become close friends on and off the field.

“On most plays, I’m situated on the same side of the defense as Tony,” said Fowler. “But his locker is right next to mine. We’ve become real close because we’re both from Lynn. He’s already proven that he’s a great captain. He’s taken on the role really well and he’s showing that he’s a leader, vocally and with his actions, too.”

Perry, whose brother James was an Item All-Star quarterback while at Malden Catholic, is happy to have the Lynn connection on the Warriors’ defensive side.

“Both Tony and Jesse have had a huge impact on our program,” said Perry.  “Obviously Tony’s impact was seen right away as a freshman when he set the school record for sacks. Jesse has had the same kind of impact. When we won the 2009 NE-10 championship, he blocked a field goal against Bentley that got us the win. Bentley had kicked four field goals and he blocked the fifth.”

Johnson has already impressed Perry in his role as a captain.

“Tony has great leadership qualities,” said Perry. “I think he’s a kid with this senior class that really wanted to do big things. They’ve all stepped up and Tony’s leadership has been exceptional.”

Perry was asked about Johnson’s future in football. “Tony has lived up to every expectation we’ve had, so what he can do with his future – I really believe it’s in his control. He’s just a great player and a great person and I’m really proud of him in all different ways. We’ve had a couple of pro scouts on campus already and they’ve been looking at him.”

Merrimack, which in addition to Johnson has two other All-American candidates in quarterback J.R. Suozzo and linebacker Shawn Loiseau, opens its season on Sept. 3 against WPI.

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