"This year is a big year," Johnson said. "This year is my senior year. I just want to go out with a bang and win a national championship during my senior year."
Johnson is the anchor of the Longhorn defense that returns seven starters (eight if you count sophomore SLB Garnet Smith, a 2003 starter who suffered a season-ending injury during the home opener).
The only returnee from last year's Butkus Award, Johnson is a two-time first-team All-Big 12 selection. 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.
Johnson certainly had the resume to declare early for the NFL draft. Although he never backed off from his stated intent to play all four seasons at Texas, some expected D.J. to go pro after former Defensive Coordinator Carl Reese (with whom Johnson was very close) resigned last January. Co-Defensive Coordinator Greg Robinson was hired on January 27, arriving in Austin with 13 years of NFL experience but with mixed reviews. His 2002 Kansas City Chiefs unit ranked dead last in the NFL in total defense, and finished No. 29 (out of 32 teams) in his third and final season. ("He took a bad situation and made it better," head coach Mack Brown said.) The Chiefs, however, did lead the League in turnover margin with a +19 advantage in that category last year.
Robinson enjoyed greater success during six seasons at Denver, directing a crew that posted three Top 10 finishes in total defense. His run defense registered three Top 10 finishes, including an NFL best 83.2 ypg in 1997. That year was the first of two consecutive Super Bowl championships for the Broncos.
Understandably, several Texas players were immediately sold on a new DC who arrived wearing two Super Bowl rings. Yet, it was critical for one such as Johnson to buy into Robinson (not unlike RB Ricky Williams' decision to trust Brown and his staff in 1998).
"I've never seen a better transition than (between) a guy like Derrick Johnson and Greg Robinson," Brown said. "He had a great three years for Carl Reese, and it worked out really well, but where a guy like Derrick could have been stubborn and have said 'I don't like this and I'm not excited about change', he has really embraced it. When your best player on defense is this excited about a change and about new coaches, I think it sends a better message to the rest of your guys."
Robinson and Johnson have spent countless hours pouring over game film from last season, searching for ways to make college football's top linebacker even more dominant. Quality opponents found ways (particularly on misdirection plays) to take advantage of Johnson's hustle and closing speed, causing him to overpursue ball carriers or simply run himself out of the play. Robinson has taught him to take better pursuit angles as well as improved ways of shedding blocks, Johnson reports. He also expects to blitz more on a swarming defense that not only flies to the ball but also flies in the face of those who criticize Robinson for trying to out-scheme an opponent rather than relying on his players' instinctive talent.
"Our defensive coaches are very fired up," Johnson said. "They bring a different spark to the team right now than (we've had) in the last few years. We're very excited right now. That's the main part. We're all buying into it. Right now, we're just going. We're not even thinking about it."
Johnson heads a trio of linebackers that look to be the most ornery headknockers that Brown has put on the field at Texas. There's not a whole lot of experienced depth behind them but Smith and MLB Aaron Harris should guard the goal line like Smith & Wesson. And they bring the kind of aggressive, nasty attitude that you would hope a linebacker would add to the defense (but which coaches continue to try to instill in other players).
Smith is a former Golden Gloves boxer and cousin of former Arkansas RB Cedric Cobbs. He played in all 13 games as a freshman as the primary backup at WLB.
"Garnet Smith is working his tail off," Robinson said.
Harris started six of the last eight games in 2003 (Texas opened in the nickel package against Texas Tech and Washington State) in totaling 60 tackles, 35 sacks, two forced fumbles and two PBU. Harris is close to full strength following an off-season incident in which he and teammate SLB Eric Hall were accosted by a large group in downtown Austin this past summer. The incident required that Harris and Hall's jaws be wired shut and obviously limited their participation in off-season voluntary drills.
"Aaron Harris had a very good summer," Robinson told me, "and I like his focus. If Aaron Harris maintains his focus and keeps working like that, he's going to be a very good football player for us."
RS-freshman WLB Robert Killebrew would be fighting for playing time at any team that didn't already have Derrick Johnson. For now, the first-team Texas 5A all-state selection from Klein will remain Johnson's understudy and be a key special teams player. Sophomore Marcus Myers is also at the spot. Redshirt freshman Scott Derry impressed coaches with his spring play and is set to back up Harris in the middle. Walk-on Stevie Stigall grabbed the back-up role at SAM in spring and hasn't let go. Mack Brown went so far as to say this week that Stigall and Eric Hall are in a battle with Smith for the start. (And, if Brown's statement is anything more than coachspeak, the Horns have more trouble on defense than just D-line depth.)
Backup true freshman Rashad Bobino has sparkled at times at MLB during pre-season camp, while Brown labels true freshman MLB Jeremy Campbell "a steady player."
"I'm very pleased with the effort that our players are giving us," Robinson said. "I think they've progressed since the spring and they've worked so hard on their own this summer that you can see it. They're much more comfortable with what they're doing."
A national title, of course, would be within their comfort zone as well.