- C.L. Brown, College Basketball Reporter
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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- The text messages North Carolina strength and conditioning coach Jonas Sahratian sends sophomore Brice Johnson don't occur frequently, but Sahratian has developed a sort of sixth sense about the timing.
Sahratian is tasked with helping Johnson, a 6-foot-9 forward, tack on weight to his slight build. The coach has prepared a daily regimen of six meals for Johnson. They're all smaller portion sizes, but Sahratian knows the Orangeburg, S.C., native has a tendency to skip one or two of them.
That's why he sends a text reminder. It takes little thought to compose and even less time to comprehend.
"When I first got here, Jonas put me on a 'six meals a day plus a couple of snacks' kind of plan," Johnson said. "I really didn't follow it because, I don't know, I was just being a hardhead."
Sahratian can prove to be just as stubborn. Johnson hasn't deteriorated to the point that Sahratian will make him take pictures of his meals, as he did for former center John Henson. And Johnson doesn't yet have to record a food log of what he eats, as freshman Kennedy Meeks does.
It could get to that point. But for now, when Sahratian gets concerned -- whether it's morning, afternoon or evening -- he'll just fire off a text.
The meals don't focus on Johnson's reaching a certain caloric intake, but they focus on his getting the right nutrients and proteins every time he grabs a fork.
Sahratian does often ask Johnson to recite what he had to eat for the day. He gets a nod of approval for things like fish and unprocessed foods like a sweet potato. Sahratian can sense when Johnson has strayed from the plan when he stumbles over his words.
"Brice has been a tough one," Sahratian said. "We've had a lot of guys who are those ectomorphic build, where every ounce of muscle is a challenge to put on them … and it always seems with those guys, they really don't have appetites, they don't like to eat, so you're always pushing them."
Sahratian has had former UNC players like Marvin Williams, who worked out in Chapel Hill during the offseason, speak to the current group about how Sahratian's plan works. Williams' build was a lot like Johnson's when the Utah Jazz forward first arrived on North Carolina's campus.
But success stories don't guarantee that players will buy in, as Johnson conceded, "Sometimes I just don't feel like I'm hungry."
Herman Johnson, his dad, was also his coach at Edisto High School in South Carolina for four years. The elder Johnson knew his son would have to gain more weight to hold his own in college. He knew it would be a challenge, too.
Genetically speaking, Brice had the slender build that was consistent on his mother's side of the family. But he was never one to eat much outside of breakfast, lunch and dinner.
"It's an adjustment he just had to get used to doing," Herman Johnson said. "He knew going in that he had to get some muscle weight or some body weight."
Brice played at a listed weight of 187 pounds last season. He's well-aware that his frame was too slim and not equipped for battling against ball-hungry big men who could easily shove him off the blocks.
That still doesn't make shoving down that fourth meal on any given day easier. That's why Sahratian's texts act as a final nudge to help Johnson make a reluctant trek toward the refrigerator.
"The amount of food that he wants me to eat every two hours, it makes me sick," Johnson said. "I feel like I'll get sick from eating all of that; that's just how I feel."
Johnson felt sicker seeing his minutes decline. In 12 of the Tar Heels' final 13 games last season, he didn't average 10 minutes on the floor. Prior to that span, he had averaged 12.4 minutes -- the most of any post player not named James Michael McAdoo.
Some of that can be attributed to coach Roy Williams' shift to a four-guard lineup. Part of it had to do with Johnson's being a defensive liability when he was in the game.
His ability to score -- particularly showing a soft touch on his jump hook -- was often offset by his knack for giving up points. Johnson would give up too much real estate in the paint, so it didn't matter that he has some shot-blocking skills; opponents were able to move him easily and score inside.
Johnson was literally tired of getting pushed around, and it forced him to reconsider how seriously he was taking this six-meal plan. During the offseason he was much more dedicated -- although he admitted it still feels unnatural to him at times to eat so much when he doesn't feel hungry.
"He's gotten better," Sahratian said. "Would I give him an A? No. It might be a C-minus still, but he's trying. The improvement that has come since is encouraging."
It helps that Johnson is seeing results. He reached 207 pounds, with a target of 210.
"I'm seeing a big difference," Johnson said. "I can hold my position a lot more. Last year everybody just pushed me when you felt like it. This year, you have to fight me now."
Johnson has more incentive to get bigger, knowing that the starting center spot is up for grabs. Williams has indicated he would like to return to a more traditional lineup this season since he has an abundance of post players on the roster.
Johnson played in all 36 games last season as a freshman, starting twice. He shot 51.1 percent from the field and averaged 5.4 points with 3.2 rebounds.
"We know James Michael is going to be in the starting spot playing the 4; we know that 5-spot is still open," Johnson said. "It's going to be very competitive for everybody."
With Johnson making progress with his weight, now he can focus on other mandates from Williams. It seems Johnson's laid-back personality translates to his being a little too nonchalant on the court.
One of the biggest criticisms Johnson received from coaches last season was that his defensive effort wasn't as sharp as it needed to be. It had less to do with being outmuscled and everything to do with not always going full speed.
"I'd go down [and] score, then end up giving up points and a foul or something," said Johnson. "They would always scream at me about it."
Williams isn't big into sending texts, but his voice sends enough of a reminder to Johnson during practice and in games.
Brice Johnson's mandate is simple: eat. That's the plan -- a six-meal-a-day plan -- designed to gain muscle and, he hopes, gain minutes.