"It's coming along and I'm getting better and better with each practice," said Marques Johnson. "Coach Mendenhall tells us that the nose guard is one of the toughest positions on the defense. Like, he's always coming up and telling me that he can't run a 3-4 defense without a really good nose guard."
The success of a 3-4 defense hinges upon the play of the nose guard. He has to determine which way the center is moving and place himself quickly into position.
"It's added pressure, but at the same time it's very motivating," Johnson said. "You become the unsung hero on the defense and the heart and soul. But it's tough! When Romney [Fuga] was here – and we watched film on him when he was a freshman and he was still learning – you can see how he mastered it when he was here."
Mastering the two-gap technique to the point that it becomes instinctive takes a lot of work.
"It just takes time and patience, and eventually me and Tuni [Kanuch] are going to get it," said Johnson. "Bronco is always behind us letting us know that we messed us and not to get comfortable but to keep striving for perfection.
"You can't get discouraged about it, but at the same time it can be discouraging because the team needs you. At the same time once you get it your teammates get excited and celebrate with you even though you're probably not going to make the tackle. That's what's great about this team. They'll come and celebrate with you because you set things up that allowed them to make the play."
When it comes to the nose guard position, glory hounds and the go-it-alone Rambo types need not apply.
"It takes a specific type of person to play the nose guard position," said Johnson. "You can't be the guy who is cocky and wants all the glory and have the spotlight on you. You have to be the one who gives up his body so others can make the play. Like Romney, when he was here, he was just the most humblest person I ever met in my life. He never had a problem taking on double and triple teams. As long as his teammates made the play, he was okay. I kind of feel like I'm the same way. I feel like I need to step it up for my teammates because you can't have a 3-4 defense without a nose guard."
Johnson and true freshman Tuni Kanuch are the two currently contending for the starting nose guard position. Johnson is a little more experienced and polished, but Kanuch has greater upside to his game.
"Yeah, Tuni is stepping it up and is probably the strongest guy on our team hands down," said Johnson. "He's just raw strength and once he gets his hands right he's going to be a force. We're going back and forth and we always watch film together and motivate each other to get better and make plays. It doesn't matter if I'm one or two, I still have to be there for my teammates, and I know Tuni feels the same way.
"As for me, I'm 100 percent healthy right now so I feel really good. I lost some bad weight, and so right now I'm 305 pounds. I feel like I'm quicker but still need to work on my two-gap technique to get it right all the time. It's like I know everything I need to improve on, but it just takes time to master it. I have to get my mind and body on the same page, then I have to speed it up. That's what I'm working on right now to be the best nose guard I can be for my teammates."
But it isn't just developing as a player that has Johnson enjoying his BYU experience. He's having as much fun off the field as he is on the field.
"Everything is good here and I really like it because everything is pretty chill," said Johnson. "Back in California there's a lot of wild stuff going on, but then you come out here and there's none of that and everyone has a different perspective. It's good for football players to just focus and stay out of trouble. That's why we can here is to play football and stay out of trouble."
He credits his fantastic experience to the type of people found in the community.
"I like the people the most and around here are the nicest people I've ever met," said Johnson with a smile. "Everybody is just like, ‘Hey, how's it going' and really interactive and it's just peaceful. I'm really enjoying my time here. It's great."
Despite not being a member of the LDS faith, Johnson hasn't felt out of place or excluded. Rather, it's been quite the opposite.
"I'm Baptist and the thing about Coach Mendenhall and everyone else here is they don't try and force the LDS faith on anybody," Johnson said. "Even if you are a member of the LDS faith, he doesn't force it on you. Like, if you were an incoming freshman, he won't pressure you to go on a mission and stuff like that. He does want us to practice our religion and grow closer to God and develop into better human beings.
"Like how it is here, if you're a non-member of the LDS faith or something like that, nothing is ever pushed on you from a Mormon angle. It's more from a spiritual angle and that brings your faith out. If you're Baptist or Catholic, we all believe in God, so it brings out a common spirituality that's tied to all faiths. It's more about the universal things that help you grown and get you closer to God rather than from a specific angle, and so no matter what faith you are, that's how we each grow closer to God here at BYU. It's just a big brotherhood here and that's what I like about it."
All students, whether LDS or not, have to take LDS religion classes as part of BYU's curriculum.
"I'm on my last religion class right now and took those early so I could get those out of the way," said Johnson with a laugh. "It's really different but they try and help you out as much as they can. I have to really pay attention so I can pass the classes, but at the same time I try not to let it soak in too much because I don't want it to be a conflict of religious interest or something like that. It's cool though and most of it goes along with my faith. It's all good."
Being at BYU has helped Johnson to grow in many ways.
"Even without the honor code, I feel like BYU makes you a better person," said Johnson. "The honor code is there to ensure that you make an effort or strive to be that better person, but I feel like even if BYU didn't have the honor code, it's just a place that makes you not want to be a part of the outside world. Everything here is compact and neat and you don't really want to do much different. That's what I really enjoy about this place."