Tyrell Johnson: Forgotten Man Gains Ground

As a four-year starter, Arkansas State's Marcellous Tyrell Johnson switched effortlessly between free and strong safety, captured his conference's all-time records for tackles and interception return yardage, and finished at the top or in the top five at his position in just about every Combine drill.

He also led a secondary ranked 19th in the nation in 2007 -- among all colleges -- with 197.2 passing yards allowed per game.

And this may be the first you've heard of him.

Call it small-school bias or simple oversight, but it's hard to understand how a player with all of Johnson's accomplishments can go unnoticed. If pundits aren't talking about Miami's Kenny Phillips as the NCAA's top safety, they might name-drop North Carolina State's DaJuan Morgan or Notre Dame's Tom Zbikowski as worthy prospects, as well. You will find little mention of the young man that at least one expert calls "the best safety in this draft."

When I caught up with Johnson, he was calling from the airport on a Sunday afternoon -- waiting for a flight to Tennessee to visit the Titans' organization. This is one of many NFL visits the Arkansas native has planned with NFL teams -- inside the league, the secret is out. Visits to Cleveland, Baltimore, Atlanta, St. Louis and the New York Giants are on Johnson's short-term itinerary, and it's more and more likely that he'll hear his name called somewhere in the first 45 spots of the 2008 NFL Draft.

The 22-year-old Johnson was born in Arkansas. His mother ran track for the University of Arkansas, and his father played NBA basketball for 10 years. "He played for the San Antonio Spurs, mainly, and the Toronto Raptors. Also the Milwaukee Bucks when he first came into the league," Johnson said. With an impressive athletic pedigree, it was no surprise that Johnson starred at Rison High as a safety and running back. As a sophomore in 2002, he helped his team to an undefeated season and grabbed All-State and All-Conference honors, and he played through an ankle sprain in doing so. Johnson also started on his high school's state championship basketball team in 2000.

The surprise was that Johnson wasn't heavily recruited out of Rison, and the evaluation of one early possible college was a real head-shaker. "I was recruited by Tulsa really hard, though they backed off a little bit because they thought I was a 'late bloomer' coming out of high school," he said. "I went to Arkansas State because they showed the most interest in me."

After redshirting in 2003, he saw the field in 2004 as a free safety. "There's a little more responsibility -- there are more keys to read," he said, when asked about the transition to the college level. "The game's a little bit faster, but I was comfortable with the transition. You have to play fundamentally sound (all the time)."

The stats bore out his comfort level. Johnson won Freshman All-American honors from the College Sports Report with 94 tackles and four interceptions. A move to strong safety in 2005 just increased the accolades, though Johnson doesn't necessarily attribute this to a position switch. " I just progressed as a player. Strong or free safety, I was making the same plays, but I just progressed as a player. I actually thought I did better in the freshman year that other years I played."

He did, however, put up perhaps his most impressive game to date -- a 25-tackle effort against North Texas in the November 26 regular-season finale. "A lot of people don't know that I was playing with a sprained MCL in that game. But I had to play, and I knew that I had to step up for the team so that we could get the Sun Belt Conference Championship. I just took it upon myself to step it up, kick it into overdrive and lead the team. I'm not saying that it was just me, but I knew that I had to do my part -- and a little bit more." The Indians lost the New Orleans Bowl to Southern Miss in December, but the school's first winning record in a decade meant a lot.

2006 and 2007 saw Johnson's teams facing some tough competition, and he was up for the challenge. In his senior season, he really turned some heads with performances against Texas and Tennessee. It was in watching film of the Indians-Longhorns 2007 season opener that Greg Cosell, Executive Producer of ESPN's State Farm NFL Matchup, first became aware of Johnson's abilities. After seeing his 14-tackle, one interception performance, Cosell believed Johnson to be "the best athlete on the field". The third game against Tennessee was equally impressive -- Johnson registered eight tackles, forced a fumble, and intercepted another pass. His six senior picks brought his collegiate total to 13, and his total of 363 tackles is the Sun Belt Conference's all-time best.

At the end of his collegiate career, Tyrell Johnson had put together a resume that should have overcome the lack of recognition afforded to most small-school players. But as Johnson said, "You have to work twice as hard as the guy from Miami to get noticed. I've always strived to be the best, and I had to prove that I could be consistent in all four of my years there. My junior year, I didn't put up the numbers that people expected of me, and that knocked me down a little bit. I had to work extra hard in my senior season to overcome that."

What about the impression that competition against supposedly inferior talent is cause for concern when rating a draft-eligible player? I've never understood why people knock the level of competition," Johnson said. "I've played against the big schools, like you said, and every year, we're playing two or three of the Top 25 teams. That takes a lot out of you.

"The biggest difference to me is the depth that the bigger schools have, especially among the defensive and offensive lines. The skill positions might be the same, but while their second or third string might be just as good as their first string -- at a smaller school, there's a big dropoff if the first-string (player) gets hurt."

Cosell told me that the level of competition a player faces is far less relevant that one might expect when analyzing players. "I watch NFL coaching tape all the time," he said. "When I watch a guy play, I'm watching for attributes and traits that project and transition to the NFL. The nature of the opponent is not important to me. If I see really good lateral quickness, or really good range or speed, I can transition a guy to the NFL. And I think that Tyrell Johnson has the attributes to be a quality starting safety in the NFL. After watching Johnson more today, and having seen (Miami's) Kenny Phillips, I believe that Johnson is a better safety prospect than Phillips is.

"I believe he's the best safety in this draft. He can play deep, as a single high safety or in a two-deep shell, or he can play in the box. That's where he played the majority of the time when Arkansas State played Tennessee. He has great versatility in that area, and he's good in both.

"He's very smooth and fluid as an athlete. He plays with excellent balance and body control, which is very important for a safety when he's trying to come up and make tackles. So many safeties just fly up, and they don't make the tackle, because they're out of control. I thought he was extremely good playing downhill from a deep safety position -- he was always in position to tackle. His speed stood out in terms of pursuit. He showed sideline-to-sideline range when he was tracking ballcarriers and running them down. He covered a lot of ground effortlessly."

As a bit of a hybrid safety who has played strong and free positions in different coverages, Johnson says that the big hit and the pass breakup are equally thrilling. "A big hit is like a slam dunk -- you automatically get juiced up for that. But a nice-looking layup, or a finger roll, that's like a good pass defense. It's about the same to me."

In certain coverages, safeties have to be extremely versatile in their responsibilities, and that's what Johnson experienced much of the time. "If a receiver went off motion, or a tight end flipped, instead of running all the way across the field, me and the other safety (FS Khayyam Burns) would just switch responsibilities. It's interchangeable -- we learned both positions."

Cosell concurred when asked about Johnson's versatility, but added that he's probably a better downhill player at this point. "He's better moving forward than playing over the top. He was (playing as) a two-deep safety (at certain times), and there were a couple of plays in which it was evident that he needs some work on recognition and reaction. My guess is that he hasn't played as much two-deep as he has down near the line of scrimmage. He was much more instinctive reading things in front of him than he was playing the pass over the top.

"He did align over the slot in coverage at times, and he has the physical attributes to play man coverage over the slot against bigger receivers. He's not going to line up in the slot and play against super-quick guys, but he can play man coverage against bigger, less sudden slot receivers. He needs technique work in that area, but everyone who comes into the NFL needs technique work."

Johnson impressed yet again at the Scouting Combine, leading all safeties tested with 27 bench press reps at 225 pounds and a 10'7" broad jump. He finished in the top five in the 40 (4.42) and vertical jump (32") as well. Even here, Johnson was out to prove a point. "It was special -- it was chaos," he said of his Combine experience. "They set it up to see who can handle everything; not getting enough sleep, other excuses not to step up and perform.

"I thought I handled it pretty well -- put up big numbers, which I'd been trained to do. A lot of people were knocking my speed. I knew I had to run fast, because some people were saying that I don't play as fast as my speed. I don't know what they're talking about, because I'm fast! I should have run a 4.3, because a lot of people think I'm a 4.5 guy, but I'm a 4.3 guy. I guess when you watch the film and I'm doing a lot of stuff where it doesn't look fast ... I don't know. I had to prove that I was faster than what the stereotype was."

Though his numbers were impressive, Johnson wasn't happy with the vertical. "I only jumped 32 at the Combine, but I jumped a 39 at my Pro Day, and I usually jump a 38. That disappointed me the most. I heard them talking about the vertical jump being messed up somehow. I wasn't going to get into it too much, because I knew that I had another chance to prove myself at my Pro Day. I knew I could jump higher than that, so I just kept it to myself and proved it."

The next thing to prove is that he can be a quality player at the NFL level. NFLDraftScout.com Senior Analyst Rob Rang, who included Johnson on his "Rang's Gang" all-star team this year, agrees with Cosell's positive assessment about Johnson's future prospects. He added a thing or two about Johnson's underrated status.

"Despite earning Sun Belt Conference first team honors three years in a row and winning conference Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2007, the most high profile all-star game Johnson was invited to was the Hula Bowl," Rang wrote. "Scouts characterized Johnson as an instinctive player with only average athleticism. While he impressed at the Hula Bowl, it wasn't against the elite talent needed to ease scouts' concerns about his level of competition. In his only opportunity to compete against the elite -- at the Combine -- Johnson may have posted the most impressive (and least talked about) workout of the year. Every year there is a 'surprise' second-round pick or two… Johnson is a candidate for such honors."

In Cosell's mind, Johnson may have already left the "sleeper" label behind. Breakout status could be next, and it would not surprise him if Johnson was a late first- or early second-round pick.

As for the young man himself, Tyrell Johnson's racking up the frequent flyer miles, making sure to give back -- he's a firm believer in stepping up for those who need help -- and thinking about what will make him a difference-maker in the NFL. "I have the physical tools and the mental tools, and the willingness to prepare myself. I think that translates well to the NFL. Just like in college, I'm looking to help a team right away with my willingness to prepare and my will to win."

Now that you've heard of Tyrell Johnson, prepare to see him. Every Sunday.

Doug Farrar is the Editor-in-Chief of Seahawks.NET, a staff writer for Football Outsiders, and he writes NFL previews for the New York Sun. Feel free to e-mail Doug here.

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