"Derrick needs to stay healthy and we need to play well," head coach Mack Brown said. "If you look at his stats (last season), he had the best stats in the country of any linebacker."
As a junior, he posted a team-high 125 tackles and 20 TFLs en route to becoming Texas' first-ever Butkus Award finalist and its first consensus first-team All-American linebacker since Jeff Leiding in 1983. His four interceptions in 2003 tied the UT season record by a linebacker. But the comparisons to Longhorn legend Tommy Nobis began surfacing during Johnson's sophomore season, when he started all 13 games. By then, he had been named the Big 12 Co-Defensive Freshman of the Year, The Sporting News National Freshman of the Year, and Defensive MVP in the 2001 Holiday Bowl win over Washington.
Johnson told Big 12 sports writers last Thursday the very thing he told me early last season: he admires Nobis but does not want to wear Number 60.
"That's brings high expectations when you wear Number 60," he said. "That pats a lot of pressure on an athlete at The University of Texas."
To which Brown responded, "A lot of players may now want to start wearing number 11."
Projected as a top five NFL draft pick, some expected Johnson to forego his senior season, especially following a superlative junior campaign and the resignation of Defensive Coordinator Carl Reese in early January. Former Kansas City Chiefs DC Greg Robinson came on board three weeks later to split coordinator duties with Duane Akina. Robinson, who is also Johnson's position coach, was given the only whistle during spring scrimmages and will have the final word when calling defensive plays this fall.
"I really like Coach Robinson," Johnson said. "I like his game plan, his personal lifestyle, everything about him. We've sat down and have had a lot of talks. He's the type of person who is like a friend you can talk to. That's what you need in a coach, someone who is also a friend."
He is also an in-your-face firebrand, Brown added.
"He has gotten after Derrick and Derrick has really responded," Brown said. "I like the relationship those two have right now. Watching him on the field, he's a much better player today in practice than he's ever been in the previous three years."
Robinson devoted the first two weeks of spring training to teaching the fundamentals of tackling to a unit that has seen a two-year slide toward mediocrity in its run defense (152.5 ypg, NCAA No. 58). For Johnson, it has meant learning to do a better job of shedding blocks as well as correcting a tendency to over-pursue.
"I'll be blitzing more from the plays we've been running," Johnson predicted. "I've been coming off the ends a little more, so I won't be free in the middle as much. Other guys will be free, so it opens up the door for a lot of things."
Robinson brings 14 years of NFL experience to the Forty Acres, including coordinating the defense at Denver when the Broncos won consecutive Super Bowls. Kansas City lead the league in turnovers (+19) during Robinson's final season but he incurred the wrath of many Chiefs fans when his unit finished near the bottom of the NFL in his final seasons.
"Before Greg Robinson came in, I thought the defense was going to be complicated since he came from the NFL," Johnson said. "It's actually real simple. He has a certain way of helping the defense learn everything so fast. We've definitely grown since Coach Robinson has come in and we're excited about the season."
Johnson was a Parade All-American as a prep star in Waco and one of the few blue chip recruits who live up to billing.
"We had a thing at North Carolina that we used to call the Michael Jordan syndrome in that every basketball player that ever came in there had to be Michael Jordan," Brown said. "At Texas, we do that too. By the time the recruiting services get through with ours, they're all 6-8, they all run 4.2 and they're all brain surgeons, and they're the best players in the history of college football before they step on the field. Cedric (Benson) and Derrick have both fallen into that. Unless you win the national championship and unless you make every play every minute of every game, they're so scrutinized. Derrick's gone through that. He's gotten better each year."