Johnson Relishes in ASU Debut

2014 has been a period of transition for the Sun Devils as they replace nine starters on defense, including three all-conference players in its secondary, relying heavily on a crop of underclassmen to help pave the way towards the future. One of those newcomers has been redshirt freshman James Johnson, who made his ASU debut last Thursday in the team’s season-opening 45-14 win over Weber State.

After just missing out on the opportunity to play in 2013, the talented playmaker looks forward to leading the new-look Sun Devil secondary and building off a solid Sun Devil debut.

When Arizona State Head Coach, now in his third year with the Sun Devils, first arrived in Tempe, he made it very clear that he intended to win with defense in a conference mostly known for its history of high-scoring offenses. So it wasn’t a surprise to see the ASU skipper landing 14 defensive commits in his first full recruiting cycle in the 2013 class, including six commits in the secondary (three cornerbacks and three safeties).

One of those early Graham commits included safety James Johnson, who starred at Upland High School (CA), which also produced former Sun Devil defensive secondary standout Osahon Irabor. As a three-year varsity starter, Johnson helped lead the Highlanders to a 12-1 record as junior while recording 62 tackles and two interceptions as junior.

The following year he tallied 45 tackles and seven interceptions while also hauling in 33 receptions for 599 yards and one touchdown. Johnson earned All-West Region honors while reportedly receiving nearly a dozen scholarship offers from schools out west, including Colorado, Fresno State, Nevada and Oregon State.

Johnson ultimately pledged to Arizona State in October of 2012, giving the Graham and the Sun Devils a cornerstone piece for the team’s future secondary defense.

As a true freshman last season, Johnson made his case for immediate playing time, challenging many of the team’s veteran players for a safety position before eventually being squeezed out after the emergence of Damarious Randall following an offseason groin injury.

While Johnson was forced to redshirt in 2013, his efforts did not go unnoticed. Unlike most redshirt players, Johnson was afforded unique privileges, which included traveling with the team for road games while remaining on high-alert for the moment he may get his number called on short notice.

“Redshirting was for my development, but I can’t thank Coach Graham or Coach Ball enough for allowing me to travel to see the game day atmosphere,” said Johnson after practice on Tuesday. “I think that really pay dividends for this year, as far as knowing what to expect on game day. That was the biggest thing for me, just seeing that pace and that game look.

”Every single week I was preparing like the starter. I really think that helped me with my game day preparation and getting that routine down. I was preparing like I was the guy and I think that has really helped me a lot.”

Johnson used that experience as a springboard into the team’s offseason where the departure of Alden Darby created an opening at the starting boundary safety position that needed to be filled. Throughout the spring and fall camp, Johnson and former walk-on Jordan Simone engaged in a tight battle for the starting role, with each player seemingly taking the upper-hand at certain times throughout the offseason.

While Simone emerged as the team’s starter last week for the season-opener against Weber State, the battle continues to drag on between the two, which has served as benefit to both players, according to Johnson.

“It’s about competing every day, especially when you’ve got a guy that you’re neck-and-neck with,” he said. “It just brings out the best in you and we’ve embraced that. We’re always looking at things for each other and always striving to be the best, so it’s really helped a lot to have a guy to battle back-and-forth with.”

The spirited competition has not only helped raise the level of play for both Johnson and Simone, but for the entire secondary overall, according to Graham. On more than one occasion the coach has pointed out that he feels this year’s secondary, even despite the losses of Darby, Irabor, and Robert Nelson, who’s now with the Cleveland Browns, may prove to be better than last year’s unit, which Johnson keeps as goal for the group.

“We’re aiming to be the best in the country and we have all the tools to do it,” he said. “It’s going to take a collective effort and that’s what I like about this year’s team. I think we have about eight guys who can start for any school in the Pac-12.

“Not to take anything away from last year’s group, but with this year’s group we have that sense of urgency to get better every single day and I think we’ve really embraced that as a unit. Everybody is young and hungry out here this year and eager to learn what Coach Ball knows and what Coach Graham knows. If we can just learn half of what they know, we feel like we’ll be where we need to be.”

Johnson and the new-look defense got their first live audition last week as he was one of 24 players who made their Arizona State debut on Thursday against Weber State. Despite surrendering two second half touchdowns to the Wildcats, Johnson felt the defense performed well in its first live-action experience of the season, providing a base to build off of heading into week two.

“I think we did well,” Johnson commented. “We’ve got to cut out the big plays, but overall I think we did real well for our first showing and we’re just looking to build some momentum for this week.”

The redshirt freshman got into the action, recording one solo tackle and a near interception in the second half. Last Thursday’s game served as the first under Graham in which the Sun Devils did not force a turnover by the opposition.

“I should have made that pick but I felt good.” said Johnson. “I felt good to go out there and finally let it loose in a game atmosphere after a year of waiting.”

Johnson and the Sun Devils will hit the road this weekend as they travel to Albuquerque to face a New Mexico (0-1) team that’ll present a new set of challenges for ASU, including an offense which features the uncommon triple-option attack.

“They’ve got a good team,” said Johnson. “We’ve got to play disciplined assignment football. That’s just what it comes down to. We can’t be worried about where the ball is. Everybody’s got to do their assignment. It’s going to take 100 percent and we should get it done.

“Regardless of where we play, we’re just focusing on us. We’re going to go in there and do what we need to do, be 100 percent on our assignments, and we expect to win.”

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