J.J. Johnson Musing Only About Football

COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Long admired as the team bard, Maryland senior corner J.J. Johnson isn't penning any prose, sonnets, or haiku these days.

COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Long admired as the team bard, Maryland senior corner J.J. Johnson isn't penning any prose, sonnets, or haiku these days.

Johnson, who for years has pumped out poetry about life, football and beyond, has put his quill on the shelf this month as he fights to regain his former stature, as a starter in the Terps secondary as Maryland enters the Big Ten.

"I haven't even picked it up," Johnson said on Aug. 27 as the Terps prepared for the 2014 season opener. "No time for that. It's strictly football right now."

Johnson said it is fun to be back and healthy and no longer restricted from any football activities coming off last year's season-ending toe injury. Meanwhile, in the last three weeks he said he's hit stride again with his technique and footwork, which was rusty coming in and him relegated to No. 2 behind sophomore corner Will Likely. But that may just be on paper, given how much he will play this fall as the Terps most veteran corner.

"Right now I am not looking at the depth chart so much for the season, because I know how much I will have the opportunity to play and how much I will play," Johnson said. "I'm just focused on contributing to the team as much as I can, whenever I am out there, and that's all you can do."

Johnson said he does not know how the reps will be split yet, but does know, given how much the Terps run nickel and dime packages especially against teams that like to spread things out and toss it around, that his number will be called, and often.

"I really feel like I am a starter heading into the season, given how much I have prepared, given my mindset going into the season," Johnson added.

And speaking of that toe, Johnson said that early in camp he was losing one-on-one-battles because he was not moving his feet as well as he should be, and that he improved through the month in that area and with press coverage.

"I had lost a little step as far as my technique and things like that because I hadn't done it in so long," said Johnson, who also missed spring camp while recovering. "But I think as camp went on I made an improvement in that area, you know moving my feet at the line of scrimmage, being able to run down the field with receivers. I feel good about my press coverage, my off coverage as well, and I am just real confident as this is my third year in this defense."

Johnson said it's the deepest defense he has seen at Maryland, and, overall, the confidence is soaring. He said he sees flashes from different backups up every day as well, the A.J. Hendys and Zach Dancels of the world, who both had big plays/picks this week in practice. Johnson is also on the starting kickoff and punt return teams.

Johnson also likes the two true freshman corners, Josh Woods and Daniel Ezeagwu, who both shined in the Terps open scrimmage two weeks ago in extended play.

"I like both of those guys. They both are bigger guys, Coach [Brian] Stewart always refers to them as 'long' guys. They have bigger stature, but they are still freshmen, really raw, but you can see flashes of their skill and ability and obviously it's just going to take a little time. But Daniel is a very physical guy, he wants to get on you, get his hands on you. Once he begins to move his feet more he is going to be a force to be reckoned with. And Josh has great athleticism, and I think he has good ball skills as well."

As for Johnson -- fully healed now from last year's toe injury, which knocked him out Week One against FIU, all after starting every game as a skinny sophomore many likened to a young Dom Foxworth -- Stewart said:

"It's so early right now. I know we are going into our first game so we use that depth chart for how we walk into the stadium. And that's about it," Stewart said. "Its fluid, I think that J.J. had a great camp, the last two scrimmages he had interceptions for touchdowns. He's productive, and I'm excited about watching him get back on the field."

Johnson said the mantra for the defense, which likes to call itself "Big Red," is being more disruptive than ever, getting more takeaways and sudden change plays. Johnson said it comes from the great senior leadership and experience across the unit.

"I think our overall identity is disruptive, mean, in-your-face kinda defense," Johnson said. "We don't want to be denied."

At the nose spot, where seniors Keith Bowers and Darius Kilgo are tangling, it's a similar story.

Kilgo is '1B' to Keith Bowers '1A' heading into the opener Saturday against JMU. Kilgo, the Terps run stuffer deluxe in the middle, is on the Terps leadership council, started 12 of 13 games last season, and 11 of 12 the year before. But it's the scrappy and chatty Bowers who will get the nod, at least with first team, come Aug. 30, though it, too, will be a fluid situation and both will play.

"I still take pride in my position, whether I am a starter or I am coming off the bench. I am still going to come in and give my best to the team and the defense. I just am taking it and have run with it and will play to the best of my ability," Kilgo said on Aug. 27.

Kilgo said they feed off of each other, while Bowers is a bit quicker getting off the ball, Kilgo better holding up blocks.

Like J.J. Johnson, he's not sweating it, and is excited for his role heading in after a summer working both on his hands and feet to get a little quicker

"Being able to take the first step off the ball, being able to have a quick step, so you can definitely blow a guy off the line of scrimmage. That's one thing we all wanted to emphasize over the summer, being able to have good footwork, being able to recognize blocks, and having good hand work. I think it's something we took pride in."

Kilgo admits Bowers talks a lot more in the trenches and out, while "I'm kinda a quiet guy, but I can talk when I need to," Kilgo said. "And we're good friends, and we definitely joke around a lot together. We have been together for a long time now."

Last season Kilgo had 37 tackles, including 6.5 tackles for loss and two sacks. He also recovered a fumble. This summer in camp he said the defense worked long and hard on getting more strips, fumbles recoveries, and the like. He said Stewart had them run specific drills to get two men always at the ball to create fumbles, among other specific ball drills.

"I think more so than ever we are flying to the ball, making plays...when you look at the film, guys being aggressive, it's so much more than if you saw us last year in camp," said Kilgo, who has two forced fumbles and two recoveries so far this month. "To have that mindset when we are flying to the ball, that anything can happen at any given moment and you don't want to leave any regrets by loafing to the ball."

Stewart said both seniors will play and each bring their own skill set:

"I think they are very similar, that's why we play both of them," Stewart said. "One thing that Keith does is that he brings a little more juice, he's more vocal, a more vocal guy in the huddle. But other than that, they both contribute well."

The Terps' defensive coordinator said it will depend on situations, and he has stressed more so than ever sacks and tackles for loss this season.

"So I am pretty excited because I think we are going to be pretty good," Stewart said of his defensive front, which promises to rotate more given its better depth, illustrated like at no place like nose with the senior co-starters. "We know that pass rush is something we want to do well at, we want to be a disruptive defense."

Kilgo said backup senior defensive end Spencer Myers has been a pleasant camp surprise so far, while among the rookies Jesse Aniebonam has jumped out the most for his athleticism on the edge and pass-rush ability.

Overall, Johnson said he and Kilgo have never even spoke on the matter of not starting, as the veterans have the mindset they both will play, "and a lot, and play huge roles in this defense. And when it's time to go out and perform it's just like any other time," Johnson said.

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