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May 12, 2006It's October 8th, 2005, and Arizona is on the road at top-ranked USC. There's about 8:30 left in the fourth quarter and the Wildcats are giving the Trojans their best shot, only being down 14 points this late in the game.
Future Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush takes the handoff from quarterback Matt Leinart on 1st and 10 from the USC 29-yard line. Bush easily gets by the defense and is running down the sideline towards the end zone.
Out of nowhere comes backup safety Michael Johnson, sprinting across the field and catching Bush at the 6-yard line, grabbing him by the collar and throwing him to the ground.
"I took a bad angle and he broke it," said Johnson of the play. "It turned into a foot race so I had to catch up with him. It was good and all, but he picked up 65 yards on the play so I still wasn't happy."
In the scheme of things, it was a pretty insignificant play. USC scored two downs later, ending any chance of an Arizona comeback. But as quickly as Johnson caught Bush, making for one of the highlight plays of the season for Arizona, he emerged onto the scene for the Wildcats.
Johnson came to Arizona as a transfer from Tyler Junior College in Pfluggerville, Texas. He missed spring practice in 2005 due to a leg injury and was a backup to starting safety Lamon Means entering the 2006 season.
Considering how impressive the starting safety duo of Means and Darrell Brooks were in 2005, not many people expected Johnson to make much of a difference in his junior season, especially considering the fact that he couldn't participate in spring ball.
Playing a limited role in Arizona's first four games, Johnson totaled just 12 tackles. In the team's next three games, against USC, Stanford and Oregon, he was given a little more playing time and took advantage of the opportunity with 17 tackles.
Finally, Johnson was inserted into the starting lineup in a road game at Oregon State and that's when he really broke out. In Arizona's 29-27 victory, Johnson had nine tackles and three interceptions, one of which he returned 40 yards for a touchdown.
After the big game, Johnson was named Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Week and National Player of the Week. In the team's last four games, he basically didn't leave the field.
In the four games Johnson started, he compiled 31 tackles and four interceptions. He ended up second on the team in tackles with 60 and led Arizona in interceptions with four. If Johnson started all season long, he would have competed with Brooks for the team-high in tackles, which was 93.
With Johnson returning for his senior year in 2006, Arizona fans are confident that once again the UA will have one of the very best secondaries in the country.
This spring, Johnson did nothing to give anyone reason to believe the second half of his junior year was a fluke. Of course, Johnson was just happy to participate in spring practice this time around.
"It was a good experience because I missed out on it last year," he said. "It was good to play with the team and bond with the guys this year. It was a really good experience."
Johnson, who is now 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds, was impressive all spring long but wasn't exactly satisfied with how he performed.
"I'm an overachiever so I wish I could have done much better," Johnson said. "But I didn't miss any tackles so I played pretty good all and all. I always want better though."
In scrimmages, there's not much more the defense could have done. The UA was impressive defensively throughout the scrimmage at just about every position.
One player that Johnson was particularly impressed by was fellow defensive back Wilrey Fontenot.
"I was really impressed with Wilrey Fontenot," said Johnson. "Everyone expects so much of Antoine Cason and sometimes people forget about Wilrey but he is a very talented corner and showed it all spring."
Everyone knows about Arizona's secondary by now, but one of the keys to Arizona's success in 2006 will be the defensive line. This spring, Arizona was missing two probable starters for next season in Louis Holmes and Gabe Long.
Still, the UA defensive line performed well and Johnson liked what he saw.
"This spring we saw the defensive line play well in the pass rush and holding their gaps," said Johnson. "As a secondary player, you can tell if the defensive line is getting a good push because you don't have to cover as long and you can sit and break on certain routes. There was a definite improvement in the defensive line and it could be a big help next year."
One of the biggest questions surrounding the defense next season is who will replace Brooks as a verbal leader. Johnson sees a couple of linebackers filling that role.
"The verbal leaders are Spencer Larsen and Ronnie Palmer for the linebacking corps," said Johnson. "I had a meeting with Coach Mark Stoops this spring and he told me to be a verbal leader.
"I've always led by example. If I make plays then everyone around me will make plays, get excited and play with a lot of energy."
On offense, there were several players that stood out this spring in Johnson's eyes. He calls Syndric Steptoe and Mike Thomas "the two best receivers in the Pac-10" but thinks quarterback Willie Tuitama was particularly impressive.
"I was impressed by Willie being able to keep his composure and being more mature," he said. "He did really well out there this spring."
Of course, Tuitama improved that much more by going against Johnson and the UA secondary every practice. According to Johnson, both parties benefited by the matchup.
"We practiced against one of the best quarterbacks in the country," Johnson said. "It is going to make us all better across the board."
Johnson attributes a lot of his success thus far to the Arizona coaches. Mike Stoops and his brother Mark are known nationally for being able to improve defensive backs as much as any other coach in the country.
In the case of Johnson, they've definitely lived up to their reputation.
"Coach Mike and Mark are both hardnosed coaches," said Johnson. "I don't mind them coaching me hard because I feel the harder they are on me, the more they expect of me. That's why I don't mind if they get on my case.
"I know I have made a lot of improvements. They have taught me to watch my feet on tape from the snap of the ball to the finish of the play. The expectations are always high and they make me play a lot better."
Johnson is happy with how his coaches have helped him improve and it's obvious that Mike Stoops is impressed by his starting safety. In fact, Stoops has been quoted as saying that Johnson could potentially be the first safety selected in the 2007 NFL Draft.
That's a lot of pressure but the junior was expecting it when he selected the UA.
"I was looking forward to it when I first came to Arizona," he said. "Certain players get looked at by NFL scouts and you know who they are. When you are one of them, it makes you play a little different and have a whole different attitude because you should be playing better all the time."
The pressure will not only be on Johnson next season but the UA program in general. The team has won just six games in two years but in 2006, everyone expects things to be different.
"My expectations are to have a winning record and go to a bowl game," Johnson said. "I also want to gain some more respect for the University of Arizona football program.
"Personally, I expect myself to play a lot better than I did last year. I want to make a ton of improvements. I want to improve on my statistics, my energy, my hustle and gain some accolades in the Pac-10 and NCAA."
For Johnson, making a bowl game is a very achievable goal.
"I think it was very realistic that we could have made a bowl game last season," he said. "We lost five games by seven points or less so we could have been 8-3. This year we have improved at so many positions.
"We have a quarterback coming back that has more experience and played all spring, Chris Henry is at running back and he will bring a speed factor, and we have a defense that will step up big from last year since we're only replacing Darrell and Copeland (Bryan)."
Johnson already has his eyes set on one game in particular for next season.
"I am really looking forward to playing USC at home," he said. "That is going to be a very big game."
Nationally, not a lot of people will give Arizona a chance against USC. That's irrelevant to Johnson.
"Looking at the improvements we have made over the past year, I think we can match up with any team in the entire country, seriously."
Not only has Johnson enjoyed the football side of life at Arizona, but he's also having a good time socially.
"I like to go out with my teammates and show up in public as long as everyone is cool," he said. "I just like to stay out of trouble but have as much fun as possible. I live with Chris, Wilrey and Ronnie and it is a lot of fun. We work hard and play hard but have a lot of fun together."
Having a player as talented as Johnson in the UA program is somewhat bittersweet because he's a junior college transfer. Fans don't have a very long time to appreciate his talent because after one more season he'll be gone to the NFL.
Regardless of his abbreviated time in Tucson, Johnson sees very bright things for the future of Arizona Football.
"You can see the program is on the rise as far as the attitude of the coaches, players and fans," Johnson said. "The fans know good things are coming in the future."
With Johnson starting in Arizona's secondary in 2006, the fans know that very good things are coming in the future.