Safety Jaquan Johnson doing ‘spectacular things’ for Miami Hurricanes

Jaquan Johnson returns an interception 30 yards for a touchdown against Virginia. (Al Diaz/Miami Herald/TNS)

[One thing that saved Miami’s season]

[Rosier close to Canes TD record]

[Richt on run game, uncalled holds vs. UVa]

[Miami holds at No. 2 in the polls]

[5 takeaways from Miami-Virginia]

When Mark Richt took his first look at his new team in Dec. 2015, he admits he wasn’t blown away by Jaquan Johnson.

“He wasn’t a big guy,” Richt said. “I wasn’t sitting there going, look at this guy, you know? He was certainly very athletic and strong-looking. He’s a handsome kid. I didn’t know he was going to be that type of playmaker.”

Few safeties in the country are having a bigger impact than Johnson, who is listed at 5-foot-11 and 190 pounds. Though he was left off the list of finalists for the Jim Thorpe Award (top defensive back) released Monday, he was one of 15 semifinalists for the Walter Camp National Player of the Year Award. Monday, he earned another honor: Johnson won his third consecutive ACC defensive back of the week award, becoming the first Hurricane to win three ACC weekly honors in a row.

“I can’t think of a safety playing better than him in the run game, when it comes to interceptions, when it comes to just leading a team by example and being so highly productive,” Richt said Monday. “The guy to me is all-ACC and really, I think he should be an All-America candidate.”

Johnson leads Miami (10-0, 7-0 ACC) in tackles (75), and is tied with teammate Michael Jackson for second in the ACC in interceptions (four). The Hurricanes lead the nation in takeaways, averaging 2.7 per game. If anyone is the face of Miami’s Turnover Chain, it is Johnson, who has worn it in each of the last five games.

He had one of Miami’s three first-half interceptions against Syracuse on Oct. 21. His fumble recovery sealed UM’s win at North Carolina the next week. He followed that with a one-handed interception against Virginia Tech. He started the Canes’ turnover party against Notre Dame by catching a deflected pass (and was later named Walter Camp national defensive player of the week). His critical pick-six last week against Virginia led ABC/ESPN broadcaster Chris Fowler to call him “one of my favorite players to watch” this season.

Johnson’s play has been vital for a defensive backfield that lost four players to the NFL, and entering the season was considered a major question mark.

“The guy is unbelievable,” defensive coordinator Manny Diaz said. “He’s the heart and soul of our secondary. When you need a guy to make a play, that’s the guy.”

At Miami-Killian High, Johnson was a four-time All-Dade selection by the Miami Herald. As a senior, he carried 16 times for 150 yards and one touchdown, caught eight passes for 86 yards and on defense, recorded 41 tackles, three interceptions and scored touchdowns by fumble return (two), punt return and interception return.

Jaquan Johnson threw up the 'U' long before national signing day. (Miami Herald)

Jaquan Johnson was a ‘U’ fan growing up. (Miami Herald)

Recruiting analysts spoke highly of his playmaking ability, but his size kept him down in the rankings. He was the No. 9 safety in the nation according to 247Sports, the No. 16 athlete per ESPN and the No. 33 athlete per Rivals.

“He was a dog when he got to us,” former Killian coach Cory Johnson said. “We had to teach him how to play under control, with a controlled rage. You cant be in ‘kill mode’ the whole time. You have to be a thinker, to make plays before the play, set things up and know what’s coming.”

The coach’s blueprint was a small defensive back he coached at another school, Southwest Miami High: Lamarcus Joyner, a star at Florida State who now starts for the Los Angeles Rams. The coach soon realized the freshman could handle anything he taught him during their one-on-one sessions in his office. “Honors football,” he called it.

Soon, he saw his student making Advanced Placement plays.

In 2012, Johnson’s sophomore year, Killian faced Columbus High in the Class 8A regional final. Johnson saved a kickoff return touchdown by running down future FSU standout Jesus “Bobo” Wilson, and later scored a rushing touchdown. But the play that gets his coach fired up: Johnson, playing one half of the field in a Cover-2 scheme, had the responsibility of handling a pair of receivers running vertical routes on his side. He charged toward the sideline, baiting the quarterback into throwing down the seam. Once the quarterback bit, Johnson pivoted, sprinted to the middle of the field, and made a leaping interception in the end zone.

“I said to myself, ‘Man, that’s Ed Reed right there,'” his coach recalled.

The real deal, the future Pro Football Hall of Famer, was on the sideline for the Notre Dame game, whooping it up while wearing a Turnover Chain. After the game, Johnson said, “he told me he was proud of us.” Reed, who sat in on team meetings that week and spent extra time with Johnson, was no doubt pleased last Saturday.

Virginia led Miami 28-21 in the third quarter. Quarterback Kurt Benkert was having the game of his life, completing 18 of his first 19 passes for 288 yards and four touchdowns. Miami’s unbeaten streak — and potentially, its College Football Playoff hopes — were in danger.

Miami defensive back Jaquan Johnson (4) celebrates after intercepting Notre Dame quarterback Brandon Wimbush. (AP)

“The quarterback was doing a great job moving out of the pocket, and keeping his eyes down the field and delivering a perfect ball on the run,” Johnson said. “The defense that was called, we were able to corral him and keep him in the pocket and disguise to make it seem like something was open, and that’s what we did. Once he threw it, I was able to break underneath the route.”

He took it 30 yards to the house, tying the score at 28 with 9:57 left in the third quarter. Virginia didn’t score again, and Miami won 44-28.

“It was beautiful,” Richt said. “Anytime you get an interception for a touchdown or a turnover, that ignites everybody.”

His old coach at Killian was just as proud watching Johnson play Georgia Tech’s option run game on Oct. 14.

“He sat in the middle and had the dive, quarterback keep and the pitch,” Cory Johnson said. “He stayed disciplined the whole game. He didn’t get a turnover, but he was there every single play. I was most proud of him for that. Highlights are great, but the scouts want to see how consistent you are.”

Johnson, a junior, hasn’t said anything about his interest in the NFL — NFLDraftScout rates him No. 7 in next year’s safety class — but he’s certainly a potential pro.

“He has to be one of the toughest guys I know,” defensive tackle RJ McIntosh said after Saturday’s game. “Him making that play, it was normal for us. We see it all day, every week. The player he is now, he has become, I’m excited for him. I’m excited to see what the future holds for him.”

Linebacker Shaq Quarterman offered a sharp summation.

“Jaquan is the guy,” he said. “He does spectacular things.”

Reader Comments 0

0 comments