After dominant sophomore and junior seasons that totaled over 170 tackles and ten sacks, Johnson turned in another terrific season as a senior, posting 76 tackles, 12 quarterback pressures, 10 tackles for loss, three sacks, one caused fumble and one fumble recovery that he returned 40 yards for a score, despite being double teamed on every play and sometimes triple teamed.
It comes without surprise with the body, explosiveness and production that Johnson possesses, college programs from coast to coast made Hoxie, Arkansas a spring stop. The first to offer was Mississippi State after the Hoxie staff took a group of their linemen to a camp. After the Bulldogs, programs such as Arkansas, Ole Miss, Arkansas State, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Georgia Tech, Baylor and Memphis extended offers before the Longhorns secured the big man's commitment.
Shortly after arriving at Hoxie, a school made up of roughly 280 high school students, and speaking with head coach Tom Sears at length, it was easy to understand why he thinks he may have a "once-in-coaching-career" type of prospect.
"Really, Derek is probably one of those kids you get once in a coaching career," said Sears. "I hope not, but he could be. From every standpoint, he is one of those kids. From his ability to walk on the field and get instant credibility as far as people are going to run away from him. They (opponents) are game planning what they are going to try and do with him. You just don't get those types of kids often. Every year he has gotten better. His maturity level from ninth grade to where it is now is just incredible. I think he's taken everything in great stride and worked to get better," Sears said.
Because of the blocking rules in Arkansas high school football and the fact that Johnson can be just as devastating at end as tackle, Hoxie moved the agile 300-pounder around a lot. Coach Sears sees him possibly playing three different spots for Texas depending on how he keeps his speed and quickness.
"He always liked Texas from the beginning, but especially after he got to talking to Coach Tolleson and Coach Giles. The way they play their four front there is three big guys and then a speed rush end, and Derek knows he has the potential to play any of those three big positions. He would like the chance to rush the passer. A lot of that will depend on how he keeps his speed and quickness down in the future," Sears said.
As is the case with any young defensive lineman that has the ability to physically dominate, his pads can get high at times. Coach Sears sees that as an area of improvement as well as understanding a role within a play or game and understanding that every play can't be a tackle.
"Some adjustment will be needed as he wants to be involved in every play. That's one of the things we've talked to him about is that he won't make every tackle. That's the type of kid he is, he wants to be around the football. One of the problems we've had and he got a lot better as the year went on, is staying low and disrupting plays and doing your job. Worry about your job, blow up your play and not try to make every tackle there is. The technique of what they want him to do won't take a whole lot of time. Whether it be to control your gap and not worry about everything else or whatever they want him to do," Sears said.
While technique is an aspect of the game every player at any level is continuously working on, so many don't possess what Johnson has been blessed with physically and internally. Playing with a motor and explosiveness sets the future Longhorn apart.
"He's just so explosive and the way he can dominate people. This level here and the people we played, he could throw them out of the way. Really, when he wanted to, he could completely dominate physically. He's just so explosive and strong. I think he'll be able to carry that over with him to the next level because he has been God given blessed with the body he has. Maddog (Jeff Madden) is going to take that and make him so much better. He's just naturally strong," Sears said.
Perhaps more than the physical change in front of Johnson with the step up in competition, is the move from a town of 2,817 people to a booming city of more than one million. That can be very tough at times on some kids, but Coach Sears doesn't foresee a problem because his star lineman has been forced into maturity at a younger age than many.
"That's a great question about the change from Hoxie to a big city. Every kid is going to handle that different. Derek's situation is really unique. He's had to do a lot of stuff that matured him at a young age, so that will set him apart from the normal kid going into that environment. He's had to do a lot of stuff on his own and you can see bad things in some of those situations with kids. He's able to rely on himself and has for a while. He's a hard worker. He doesn't like to get beat." Sears said.