One of the ways he does that is with his hybrid position. Called the "star" at Auburn and the "spur" while he was at South Carolina, it's a spot where a bigger safety or smaller linebacker can find a home and be a differencemaker on defense.
While at South Carolina it was Antonio Allen, who became the leader of the Gamecocks' defense under Johnson's direction. A three-star safety prospect, who got a look at both safety and strongside linebacker at South Carolina before finding at home at the "spur," Allen started 31 games in three seasons in Columbia and finished with 193 tackles during that span.
Fast forward to spring practice at Auburn and the goal to find the "star" candidates was one of the top priorities for Johnson and the Tigers' defensive coaches when they hit the field. It didn't take long for junior Justin Garrett to jump into that role and become the player Auburn was looking for at the position.
With fellow junior Robenson Therezie also stepping up and performing well at the position along with Garrett and coming on strong, Auburn Coach Gus Malzahn says that the two fit perfectly with what the Tigers are hoping to accomplish on that side of the ball this season.
"You heard about him during the spring and I really felt like he was one of our more consistent guys," Malzahn says of Garrett. "And then Robenson Therezie was at that 'star' position. It's a very versatile position that you've got to be able to cover people. You've got to play sometimes inside the box at a linebacker position and then also Coach is going to blitz that position. It takes a very athletic guy, and both of those guys can definitely do that."
The position is the one that Johnson wants to build his defense around and that is what made the emergence of players at that position in the spring so important for the Tigers. Facing teams that are going to spread a defense thin such as Washington State, Arkansas State, Ole Miss, Texas A&M and even Mississippi State, LSU, Georgia and Alabama to some extent, finding a player versatile enough to play in the box while also athletic enough to play in the secondary is a must for the Tigers.
"That probably is the one brightest spot coming out of our spring, personnel-wise, is we found a guy, I think, who is perfect at that position," Johnson says. "He had an absolute outstanding spring and we have got a guy pushing him now in Therezie.
"We have got two guys--you can put either one of them out on the field," the defensive coordinator adds. "Therezie needs more work because he didn't practice there the whole spring, but those guys look like they're tailor-made for that and that's a big, big plus."
In addition to Garrett and Therezie, Auburn should also get help at the position from the incoming recruiting class with junior college signee Brandon King and high school players Khari Harding and Mackenro Alexander all capable of playing the spot.
While King and Harding are expected to get their first look at one of the true safety spots, Alexander may have the first crack at getting into the mix at the "star" after playing an undersized linebacker role in high school at just 6-0, 185. Finishing his senior season with 154 tackles and four interception returns for touchdowns, he could be the type of playmaker Johnson covets as his "star."