Player Capsule: James Johnson
Position: Field Safety (can also play Bandit)
Weight: 195 pounds
2014 season quick review: ASU needed Johnson to fill in at times for Jordan Simone at the Bandit position and did so quite admirably for a redshirt freshman player. On the year he had 25 tackles with three for loss and one sack.
Co-defensive coordinator/secondary coach Chris Ball's take: "It's time for James to be a [standout]. He played a lot this (past) year, he got us out of some games, played with some guys that were pretty good, he’s ready for that. You know, there will be a few mistakes because he’s inexperienced but in the same sense he’ll make a lot of plays because he’s really smart and talented, he’s ready to be that guy.
"He’s so smart, so smart, he’s got a good size and he’s tough, he’s really tough. Talent wise he’s talented but if you wanted he could be faster but he thinks well on his feet which makes up for it. You know, Damarious (Randall) was really fast, [but] for James it’s, can he make up for his, you know, he’s not slow but...he knows what’s happening, he can see it. Probably better than Damarious can. There will be a completely different type of player but I think we can win it all with him."
SunDevilSource.com analysis: Johnson is a true safety, unlikely a lot of the ASU defensive backs who are capable of sliding between safety, cornerback and nickel. The Sun Devils blitz so much and are such an aggressive defense that often the safeties end up in man coverage and have to show coverage skills, so foot quickness, speed and range are all more of a premium than teams that play a lot of base Cover 2 and other more conservative zone looks. But while Johnson isn't a high end athlete in this sense, he largely makes up for it with a combination of impressive instincts, preparedness and length.
The big question that will exist for Johnson moving forward are related to how well he handles man coverage assignments in space, particularly when ASU blitzes its Spur, because when it does so the field safety often has to manage a slot receiver in wide open space. That's an area Randall excelled due to his range and playmaking instincts. Secondarily, does he have the ability to get to the sideline on fades and other vertical shots when playing in zone over the top in a way that takes a little bit of pressure off the field side safety? Randall could get there quite easily and was a turnover threat in that regard, which quarterbacks knew.
On the flip side, even though Johnson isn't a muscular, bruising type safety, he plays the run very well and is probably a better stopper coming up than Randall was in that capacity. He's also extremely reliable and is almost always in the right place and the overall continuity of the secondary has been very good with him on the field.
Projected depth chart status: Even though he's only started one career game, Johnson has a strong hold on top spot at the field safety position this spring. It would take a younger player, perhaps a more athletic Armand Perry or Chad Adams, playing at a very high level from an assignment soundness standpoint to unseat Johnson. If that happens, the Sun Devils will probably be looking at their next all-conference caliber safety. Johnson perhaps doesn't have as high a ceiling as others due to his moderate athleticism, but he capable of playing very successfully at the Pac-12 level.