Johnson settles down at safety

When Keelan Johnson committed to ASU out of Mesa High School, he faced uncertainty as far as what position he was going to play and if he could play at all. These days, there's no doubt that he is one of the better safeties for the Sun Devils.

When Johnson graduated he was rated the no. 9 running back in the state of Arizona in the nation according to Scout.com. He was also listed as one of the state's top defensive backs by other recruiting services.

All of this led to a tough decision by Johnson as to where to play his college ball as he was heavily recruited by Nebraska and ASU alike. Ultimately, ASU giving him the opportunity to play offense swayed his decision to sign with his hometown team.

Although Johnson started his career on offense as a receiver in preseason camp in 2008, he was moved to safety during the year and now is part of a wide-open competition for playing time in that group this season.

"I had a lot of people doubting me at the safety position, saying I couldn't play," Johnson admitted, "I couldn't tackle, and I wasn't smart enough. But it's real great that I get to prove them wrong."

Johnson played in his first career college game a week and a half ago against Idaho State and stated that it was a great experience.

"I didn't forget a lot of things like everybody thought I would," he remarked, "and it was just exciting playing in front of that many people."

Still, with all the fierce competition at safety, Johnson didn't see as much time as he wanted, but knows it's no knock against him.

"It's really not that difficult," Johnson commented. "Everything is pretty much balanced back there. We're all playing for the same goal, so it's really not a big deal."

Johnson has worked hard since being redshirted last year and has silenced a lot of his critics from the year before.

"I've just been trying to work on my man coverage," Johnson mentioned. "I came in not playing very well in man coverage, and I'm playing better and better everyday.

"The biggest thing is my determination. Last year I wasn't really playing at all, so I didn't really pay attention in the meetings. This year I'm a redshirt freshman and I took a big step, so I'm just learning from all the upper classmen."

One role he is content taking a back seat for the time being is on the a kick coverage team, where he normally blocks for Omar Bolden the team's primary kick returner. Nonetheless, he had one of his own for 36 yards against Idaho State.

"That doesn't really matter," Johnson acknowledged. "I'm just trying to get the job done. I have my shot at returning if I want to next year, and this year I'm just doing my role, which is leading and blocking."

One thing Johnson learned even by sitting on the bench in 2008 was never to overlook an opponent, and to make improvements after each game.

"After the UNLV game last year, you just never take a team for granted," Johnson stated, "because when you just assume you're going to beat them you get beat like we did last year.

"I just get in there and make more plays. A lot of the plays went to the linebackers last week; (Mike) Nixon had three (interceptions). We need to get the safeties in the big plays like that in returning some interceptions for touchdowns."

Johnson has a few things playing in his favor to make the necessary improvements as well. ASU boasts one of the best front-sevens in the Pac-10, which makes life easier for the secondary. Johnson's athletic ability, which allowed him to excel locally at basketball as well while at Mesa High doesn't hurt either.

"It's great because it allows us to play more pass coverage instead of coming up," Johnson declared, "and we don't have to bite on play action as well, so it just gives us more opportunities for interceptions.

"During basketball I really didn't get tired, so I just conditioned a lot. So I just bring that with me, I could probably play a whole game without getting tired."


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