Johnson embracing starting role

Keelan Johnson has been patiently waiting for his chance to shine in the ASU secondary. Previously buried on the Sun Devil depth chart, he has since risen to the top and looks forward to the opportunity at turning around a Sun Devil defense that faltered down the stretch last year. Armed with a talented, though inexperienced supporting cast, the Mesa native is ready to lead the way in 2012.

Defense wins games.

The expression is tried and true.

It's no coincidence that when ASU won six of its first eight games last season the team's defense was aggressive, opportunistic and playing at its highest level. Down the stretch, for whatever reason, that same defense fell apart and the once promising 2011 season vanished before Sun Devil fans' eyes.

With only four returning starters on defense back from last year, the Sun Devils have a chance to start fresh. Johnson, along with junior Alden Darby who will be back at his original safety position this fall, now lead an anxious ASU secondary looking to redeem itself.

"The opportunity is great," said Johnson at media day on being a senior leader. "Basically, my main focus is just being more prepared and understanding the things I need to know and make sure I can teach the other guys around me. I'm just trying to absorb everything and communicate with them.

"I feel very comfortable in this role. It's probably the best atmosphere or feeling I've had about this program since I've been here. I may not be as vocal as Alden Darby because you know, he jumps around and he's out there doing his thing, but I'm still leading."

Individually, the Sun Devils feature a number of athletes on defense this year who are still learning to play together as a team. They've shown in the past they capability of playing at high levels but have lacked consistency, something a more disciplined ASU team hopes to atone for in 2012.

"As a group, I feel like we've always been in position to make plays, but when it comes down to it, we just need to do a better job at finishing those plays," remarked Johnson. "For me, I just need to figure out what I'm comfortable doing out there, you know, what works for me and what works for the other guys on the field while staying within the guidelines of the defense.

"Personally, once the season comes around, I want to go out and get at least five picks and return one for a touchdown. That's one of my goals right now."

As a means of shoring up the defense heading into the new season, Head Coach Todd Graham has slowly incorporated some new looks to the defense, playing in both a 3-4 and 3-3-5 set through the first few practices of the fall. For a team light on defensive linemen and well stocked at linebacker, the new schemes will hopefully get more Sun Devil playmakers on the field at once, along with allowing the secondary to roam more freely.

"I like the new schemes; it works for us," said Johnson. "We're more of an attacking defense now and we have the right kind of players to do these sort of things. If you look at our corners, they're fast and can cover a third of the field. And now what we do, you put me out there and I can cover sideline to sideline so I think this new defense really utilizes our strengths as a team and hides our weaknesses.

"I've really been trying to communicate more with my coaches. We use a lot feedback from each other. They want to know what works for us and what doesn't work for us and which players we think we can put in the types of things they want us to do."

Johnson knows the clock is ticking for the defense with the start of the season less than four weeks away. In a conference full of high scoring, dynamic, innovative offenses, the Sun Devil safety is aware of how important it is to get better each day in fall camp.

The senior understands that multiple defensive schemes are a necessity at this point, playing against teams with wide-ranging offensive philosophies, but his attitude remains the same each week, no matter the opponent.

"The mindset you have to have in order to be successful in this league is dependent on your corners, is dependent on your safeties," he commented. "Each night when we got out to practice I know they're going to do what they need to do and it allows me to do what I need to do, and vice versa."

Hopes are that the new defensive approach along with the new leadership role for Johnson will lead to a more successful season in 2012. For a local player who came to ASU to help elevate the program, the time is now to make a final impression.

"I was just telling someone earlier today that it's coming down to the last grain in the hourglass, and being here, I just want to go out with a big bang," Johnson admitted. "I want to take the guys who came here with me, like Corey (Adams), and go out the way that we're used to."

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