Towers’ Take: Competing at UGA a weighty matter for these linemen

Cedar Grove's Justin Shaffer (L) and Netori Johnson are doing their best to meet Georgia's weight goals, which include both of them dropping significant pounds before arriving in June.

ELLENWOOD — Netori Johnson and Justin Shaffer both attend Cedar Grove High School and they both signed on to play football for the Georgia Bulldogs. Obviously, they enjoy working out and hanging out together.

Right now, though, they might consider forming their own Weight Watchers club. Their weight and their management of it is foremost on the minds of these two mammoth offensive linemen — and the Bulldogs — as they count down the weeks and months until they arrive on the UGA campus.

Johnson, a 4-star guard, said he’s “down” to 331 pounds on his 6-foot-3 frame, which is about 16 below where he was just a couple weeks ago. Shaffer, a 3-star tackle who also is likely slated for guard at Georgia, said he’s “down” to 348 pounds.

Neither is at the weight that Georgia head coach Kirby Smart and offensive line coach Sam Pittman wants them to be at when they arrive on campus. They have four months to get there. Freshmen report in early June.

“Kirby wants me to come in at 320 or under,” said Johnson during a visit at the school on Thursday. “He wants Justin to come about 330. So we’ve been losing a lot of weight. Trying to.”

Johnson said he actually lost 16 pounds over the last few weeks playing basketball, but he stopped playing with the team because he felt like he was dropping too much too fast.

“Right now it’s just diet and running,” he said. “I’m doing more drinking than I am eating. Drinking a lot of water.”

Netori Johnson (L) and Justin Shaffer made great bookend tackles for Cedar Grove coach Jimmy Smith the past two seasons. CHIP TOWERS / DAWGNATION

At the moment, Shaffer has probably a greater challenge. He said he weighed 361 pounds when he visited a UGA camp last summer. Smart advised him to be 350 or below the next time he saw.

“Last time I was there I weighed 350 on the nose,” Shaffer said.

Shaffer said Smart gave him a new target weight of 325 by the time he reports to campus. Shaffer decided to do him even better. He’s shooting for 320.

“That way I have some margin,” he said.

Shaffer has been hovering around 345 but was at 348 on Thursday. But he believes he can reach the target weight, especially with the help of the diet he’s on.

“I’ve cut back on breads,” Shaffer said. “They’re telling me not to eat like potato chips, candy or cakes, all that type of stuff. Can’t eat any of those anymore.”

It’s not as easy as it sounds. First off, that requires tough discipline for anybody 16 to 18 years old. Secondly, while Johnson and Shaffer are doing their best to follow the training manual provided for all incoming players by UGA, it’s not as easy to follow at a school like Cedar Grove. Its workout facilities are modest in comparison to a lot of other private and public schools around metro Atlanta.

So both Shaffer and Johnson do most of their training off site at Atlanta Sports Complex off Gresham Road. Shaffer said he goes there at least four times a week. Johnson said he isn’t going as often right now while he’s competing in the shot put for the track team.

I was visiting with both Johnson and Shaffer on Thursday in preparation for the Next Generation profiles I’ll be writing on them and other Bulldogs in the next few weeks. So far Jeff Sentell and I have done pieces on Jake Fromm, Richard LeCounte, Isaiah Wilson, Deangelo Gibbs and Jaden Hunter. I’ve also visited with Malik Herring recently and hope to get a chance to sit down with all the Bulldogs’ 2017 signees before they report this summer.

Georgia signed 27 players between national signing day and early enrollment. The Bulldogs’ class earned a composite ranking of No. 3 in the country between all the recruiting sites.

Asked about the expectations that are coming with such a high assessment, Johnson and Shaffer both shrugged and said simultaneously, “we’re going to win a national championship.”

“That’s exactly what we’re going to get,” Johnson added.

These two players know something about winning games and championships. They’ve gone 24-4-1 the last two seasons under coach Jimmy Smith and won the Class AAA state championship this past season.

While these two guys have been metaphorically attached at the hip in recruiting, I somewhat surprised they’re not actually hanging with each other 24/7 like many might think. They’re close friends, to be sure, but they actually run in different circles away from the football field.

Their bond on the field, however, is unshakeable.

“We don’t really hang outside of school or anything like that,” Johnson said. “When it comes to playing ball, we’re best friends. When it comes to being on that field, we’re doing the same things, we’re both about business and we’re about getting it done.”

Said Shaffer: “We’ve got that bond where when we come together, it’s like we’ve got each other’s back. I mean, we’re not with each other 24-7; we go our different ways. Not like it’s a bad thing. He’s got a family, I’ve got a family. But we run together a good bit.”

They’ve run INTO each other a good bit, too. Because there are few peers their size and strength on the team — much less other teams — Johnson and Shaffer are always pitted against each other in practice. But that’s only really in the springs and in the preseason. Once the season gets underway, Coach Smith knows better than risk injury to his two best linemen who are playing on both sides of the ball all season.

But the competition has always been intense, and it extends to the weight room and track and wherever they happen to be at the same time. They believe it has made them better. It was even more competitive last year when Antwuan Jackson, coming off his first season at Auburn, was also in the fold.

That leads to the inevitable question: Which one wins more often in one-on-one matchups?

“When people ask me who’s better, me or Tori, I never answer that question,” Shaffer said. “I say, ‘we’re the same.’ Now I might have a little better bench than him; he’s got me on power clean; squats we’re neck and neck. So some things he’s a little better and other things I am.

“But at the end of the day, when it comes to work, we’re both going to work the same way. We’re going to push each other to the point we can’t go no more. And it made us both better.”

Now they’ve entered into a new competition — who can lose the most weight the quickest. This one’s not as fun.

“Right now I’ve got to get my body in shape,” Johnson said. “High school shape is not college shape. So right now I’ve got to get in a little bit better shape than I am physically. I’ve got to go in prepared mentally, too.”

Something tells me they’ll get there.


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