Cal defensive end Zeandae Johnson has made a leap this spring

BERKELEY -- Cal defensive lineman Zeandae Johnson is Crash no more, as he's made a jump into the two-deep along the Bears' new-look defensive front.

BERKELEY -- To former California defensive line coach Fred Tate, defensive end Zeandae Johnson was "Crash."

"Shoot, I haven't heard that one in a minute," Johnson smiled as he finished his 11th practice of the spring.

It wasn't a fun nickname. As a redshirt freshman, Johnson tended to go pell mell into the fray, without much thought.

"I was green, young, first time in game situations," Johnson said. "I had a lot of practice reps, but that was the first time hitting the field."

Johnson's inexperience and "ready, fire, aim" approach somewhat irked Tate, whose barking could easily be heard throughout Memorial Stadium during afternoons in the fall. Johnson just so happened to be one of Tate's favorite chew toys.

"That's an understatement," Johnson said. 

Johnson was used to not getting much respect for his defensive acumen. He fancied himself a tight end until his senior year of high school, and even played that position in offseason seven-on-seven tournaments, thinking that would be his route to college football. Until he committed to the Bears in June of 2014, he had just one offer -- from Idaho.

He was still, as he said, green, when he got to Berkeley, under Tate. Still, at 6-foot-3, 250 pounds, he had size, he had length and he had an explosive first step. He got a taste of action in the fall, playing in 11 games, but only tallying 4 tackles. No matter who was going to be the Bears' next coach in 2017, Johnson had had enough of just being "Crash." 

"I was focusing on myself, what I needed to do to get on the field," Johnson said. "I couldn't have another season like last year, where I was on and off a few games, here and there, and rode the pine, basically, for a while. Can't have that. I was just young, and had to grow into certain things."

Every other Saturday between the end of the season and the start of spring ball, Johnson and fellow defensive lineman Russell Becker worked for an hour on the sled, practicing striking, one of the key points of emphasis for new defensive line coach, Jerry Azzinaro.

"I think, sometimes, when you switch schemes, and you ask guys to do things, look at something a little bit different, it fits you better," said defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter. "I think he is one of those guys that, what we're doing right now really fits him. Coach Azzinaro has done a great job teaching him the way we want to strike. He's prototypical for what we're looking for at that position. He's a long, physical guy. He's got really good athletic ability, and the fact that he played some before, he's grown up, like all players do, so we're fortunate to have him in this situation, where he's a guy who's played some, and he fits the scheme."

Johnson eagerly sought out Azzinaro as a sounding board, one who'd coached in the NFL, and coached and recruited two first-round NFL defensive linemen, to boot, in the past five years.

"The whole change, it was like a flash of light to me, like, 'Hey, you have another opportunity, a clean slate, basically a new start, so make it count,'" Johnson said. "I met him a couple days after he was hired. It was a quick thing, and the first thing we discussed was actually grades. Then, it went to football, and it worked from there."

Azzinaro is affectionately known as "The Professor," and that approach has resonated in particular, with Johnson.

"He's not really going to jump on you about certain things," Johnson said. "He's going to get you better. He's not going to waste his time, yelling. He's been through this situation multiple times, so he knows how to get it. You just have to know to be quiet, and listen. He doesn't have time to yell at you all day. He's going to tell you two or three things, and you'd better take heed, listen and do what he says. It's not a yell, but it's firm -- like something a parent would tell you: This is what you need to do, this is what you need to fix."

"I think that he's progressing along," Azzinaro said. "It's way too early to tell. He comes to work every day. He's got a good work ethic, and he's moving along."

As spring ball nears its end, Johnson has been running with the first team, as the defense has changed from a four-man front to a three-man, two-gap front. In the last open practice, Johnson tallied two sacks, and opened up a lane for defensive end-turned-linebacker Cameron Saffle to get another. With the likes of Saffle and Weaver now at outside linebacker, Johnson's seen a path open up in front of him.

"I think Z has done a really good job," said head coach Justin Wilcox. "You see significant growth from practice one until now. He's a talented guy. He's just got to do some things more consistently, and I think, the more and more he plays, and the more he's around coach Azz, the better he's going to get."

"I'm a year older, I'm growing into stuff," Johnson said. "I've gotten more mature in my play, had a little bit of time to adjust to college football, and I think I'm ready. I'm just taking the next step. In offseason work, in hand strike, I've become a lot better at the point of attack, the initial get-off. That's really helped me, because I can play everything off of that. I wanted to get better, and get ready for this. It paid off."

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