Player Capsule: James Johnson
Weight: 204 pounds
2015 season quick review: Johnson had 10 tackles, one pass breakup and one forced fumble as a sophomore last season.
SunDevilSource.com analysis (08/2016): Throughout camp Johnson has been relegated to the sidelines as he's worn a heavy brace on his right knee. That's an additional limitation for a player who is already facing challenges with regard to his athletic range as a safety, the biggest limiting factor toward his overall prospects for seeing the field with the Sun Devils.
Johnson is a tremendous teammate and person: hard working, dedicated, a student of the game and befitting of the term student-athlete. Those are the reasons he wore a Tillman jersey in practices for much of his sophomore year even though he's been a reserve player in the secondary for the Sun Devils. In fact, he's the only non-starter who has been given the honor during the Todd Graham era at ASU.
Scheme fluency is a strength of Johnson. He sees the game through the eyes of a potential future coach, and that's an essential quality because he's limited from a coverage standpoint. As a result he has to make key reads quicker and be more mentally reactive to what's happening on the field in order to have the range to get where he needs to be. Johnson isn't one of the strongest or most physically imposing of safeties but he's extremely tough-minded and willing to use his complete capability to make plays.
Playing in tighter quarters is the best way for Johnson to be successful. He's a Spur first, a Bandit second, and particularly when ASU's utilizing more conservative zone coverages. That's not something the Sun Devils do a lot of, and so it's a contrast that's difficult to reconcile in a way that will likely lead to a lot of playing opportunity; especially when he's operating at far less than 100 percent, as it appears right now due to the knee injury. If he's put into a lot of man coverage situations or defensive looks in which he has to cover in wide swaths of open space, Johnson is going to be challenged.
(03/2015) 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: It's going to be very difficult for Johnson to get onto the field as a member of the two-deep unless he's operating at full speed because that's already his biggest limiting factor. But Spur is a position with no proven player if Laiu Moeakiola remains elsewhere in the lineup, so there's always a chance. Johnson could also slide back and play some Bandit, where he's filled in at times in the past when needed.