Certainly if Johnson does get a look at the not-to-be-named publication, he won't buy either the magazine or their story. Because he and his defensive backfield teammates have much higher expectatiosn of both themselves and their upcoming season. "We aren't trying to be 12th, we're trying to be number one. So we're trying to get better."
The progress process resumes this Thursday when Johnson, the Bulldog varsity and spring transfers, and all eligible-and-cleared freshmen open the July portion of summer school. The second semester also puts Bulldogs back in their summer workout program and on track for the opening of preseason camp August 2.
Johnson might chuckle at lack of outside regard for State's secondary, but he isn't going to argue the point in print. For that matter the East Point, Ga., product is not of a mind to waste words anyway. "We're going to let out game speak for itself," he says. And that is an accurate description of Johnson's own game. While by no means a shy guy, he is hardly a loud-mouth in the defensive backfield. "I'm a show-er," he insists.
"Do as I do, follow me. I don't speak too much so I have to show it. I ain't a talkative person. So when I do get on the field I try to show it and maybe they'll follow me."
Young pups would do well to follow the lead of this old Dog who has played all 34 State games since arriving on campus in 2003 and started twenty games, including all eleven last fall. He has 140 career tackles, 64 of them in 2005 when he was voted A.P. second team All-SEC. That is the sort of leadership Coach Melvin Smith wants from his veteran safety.
Free safety, that is. At 5-11, 216 pounds Johnson doesn't fit the current stereotype of a college ‘centerfielder.' He looks much more like the popular idea of a strong safety, and indeed that was what Johnson primarily played earlier in his career. It was before his junior year that Johnson's role adjusted, though he now explains it was not as big a deal as depth chart-designers might think.
"It wasn't a difficult transition because the free safety and strong safety basically do the same thing," he said. And there really is a large degree of interchangeability the way Mississippi State likes to run it. Johnson might set up deep in a straight coverage scheme, or creep up into the ‘box' where he can be, in his words, a fourth linebacker. "I think I can get the job done doing that."
And of course this is not a solo job. Whether pass coverage or run support, playing in a secondary demands team tactics. And Johnson likes his teammates there. Demario Bobo was the primary strong safety last season but a spring in re-hab opened the door for freshman cornerback Keith Fitzhugh to turn sophomore safety. This was why Johnson never had an issue with adapting his own starting assignment.
"I think it made it easier because if there's any chance for another person to come in and start and help the team out I'm willing to move to any position, to help us win. I think it was a good decision. It's just getting a great guy on the field with me like Keith Fitzhugh, a good person I can communicate with and stay on the same page. So I think it was a great transition."
Johnson has made another sort of late-career transition. For two seasons and two months of '05 he had shown he could tackle and cover. What Coach Sylvester Croom wanted was his safety to not only stop plays but make them himself by forcing turnovers. Johnson still isn't sure why he struggled to pick off passes with two through his first 33 games.
"I missed a lot during the season. I had to get my hands right, I don't know what was wrong but I had to get them right." Then in the 2005 Egg Bowl, Johnson got it right. He intercepted three Rebel passes; two to set up touchdowns and one to ice the 35-14 outcome. "I told myself if I didn't perform in no other game, this was the one I had to perform in," he said. Those three picks gave him four for the year and tied him for the SEC lead.
Now Johnson is spending his senior summer setting the stage for better things. He, Fitzhugh and Pegues and his backup De'Mon Glanton, along with the cornerbacks, know they are regarded as the weak link in State's otherwise-respected defense. And while Johnson laughs it off, the work this group is putting in shows they are very serious about proving such predictions wrong.
"We watch film together, we talk about what we're going to do and how we're going to do it," Johnson said. "I think back there we're going to have great communication and get the job done." Just keep in mind that the senior is speaking of communication within the unit. In fact, this is not a bunch that barks the way modern secondarys are expected to.
"D.P. (Derek Pegues) is a talker," Johnson reports. "David Heard isn't so much a talker, Keith will get his little words in sometimes." Otherwise, these Dogs really will let the on-field results speak for them. Loudly, Johnson forecasts.
"My expectation is real high. Because we're trying to go to a bowl, we want to win a bowl this year. That's all the team is talking about this year, we want to go to a bowl."