Sept. 17, 2004
by Michael Bruscas
For a cornerback, the countless possibilities that must be defended against on every single play would make chess master Gary Kasparov blush.
Husky senior corner Derrick Johnson, however, does not have Kasparov's luxury of studying his opponents' moves for as long as he likes before reacting. Johnson has only fractions of seconds to analyze the formation, read the quarterback, mirror the route of the receiver and make a play on the ball.
It's a chess match played at light speed, in front of 70,000 screaming fans.
Keeping opposing receivers in check has been Johnson's specialty over the past four years at Washington. A second-team All Pac-10 selection and the Huskies' defensive MVP last season, Johnson is the speedy veteran of a defense dominated by youth. In 2004, he and fifth-year senior safety Jimmy Newell, both of whom earned their own baptism by fire as freshmen in the 2001 Rose Bowl, will stabilize the young unit, making it tough on opponents to go over the top to put points on the board.
Not one for false bravado, Johnson's modest and quiet nature shifts to one of confidence and excitement when the subject of the Huskies' secondary is broached.
"The secondary is fantastic," he says. "I wouldn't want to be on any other secondary in the nation."
Pac-10 quarterbacks no doubt wish otherwise.
With 10 interceptions in his last 15 games, Johnson has shot up the UW career interception list and needs just seven more to tie the UW career record of 18 set from 1966-68 by Al Worley, who also holds the NCAA single-season record with 14 interceptions in 1968.
"That would be a great honor, considering all the great corners that have come from this school since then," Johnson says. "With all the tradition it would be great to leave my name in that legacy."
Seven interceptions in one season is no small feat -- no Husky has recorded more than six since Walter Bailey picked off eight passes for the 1991 National Champions -- but given Johnson's recent torrid pace and his experience in the secondary, he appears uniquely positioned to make a run at the mark.
"The thing about being a senior right now is that I've been through the system so many times, that the game has slowed down on me now," he says. "It's easier to go out and just play; you don't have to think as much."
It is often said that cornerbacks are alone on an island, matched up head-to-head against the receiver. For some, this island might seem straight out of Lord of the Flies, chaotic and disorganized. Johnson's island, however, is a Treasure Island of riches, brimming with confidence and success.
"The best part of my game is my drive to win," he says. "Every play is a one-on-one competition with the receiver to stop him from catching the pass. My will to not let him catch the pass is my biggest strength."
When offenses throw his way, odds are just as strong that "DJ" will take it back the other way than be beaten for a score. Johnson has the ability to change games for the Huskies, as he showed early last season against Stanford. With the UW holding a 21-17 edge over the Cardinal in the Pac-10 opener, Stanford took possession at its own 25 with 2:54 remaining. With the game on the line, Johnson intercepted a pass from Stanford quarterback Troy Edwards and returned it 36 yards for the game-clinching touchdown.
Johnson's sixth sense for being in the right place at the right time is actually a study in concentration and observation.
"First, I'm reading the quarterback, and if it's not a three-step drop back I'm reading the receiver," he says. "I'm looking for `stand-and-stick,' or `sit-and-rise,' and just trying to make a play."
If those terms sound foreign to you, don't worry, Johnson understands.
"Once I get that interception, it's just a great feeling," he says. "As a corner, you get a lot of passes thrown at you, but the opportunity to take an interception back to the house and help the team win is very limited. To get those is a great feeling."
A graduate of Notre Dame High School in Riverside, Calif., Johnson's mother wanted him to leave the state for a new experience.
"I was considering Wisconsin, Texas A&M, the Oregon schools and Washington State," Johnson says. "What brought me here was a combination of my mother's input, and the fact that I felt very comfortable with the coaching staff. I also got along really well with my teammates."
Well, Johnson's mother Janet Steen must be smiling, because there has certainly been no shortage of new experiences for her son.
In 2000, his freshman season, Johnson saw action in every game and started four, including Washington's 34-24 Rose Bowl win over Purdue. In fact, Johnson and Newell are the only two remaining Huskies to see action during the Rose Bowl. Also placed on his freshman shoulders were the team's primary kick return duties. Johnson shined in his dual role, averaging 24.2 yards per return to lead the Pac-10, and was named a freshman All-American kick returner by Rivals.com.
In something straight out of a "VH1: Behind the Music" special, Johnson was living life in the fast lane -- with no idea that disaster was just around the bend.
Penciled in as a starter in 2001, Johnson severely dislocated his foot during spring drills. The injury forced him to redshirt the season and watch each game on crutches from the sidelines. Johnson, however, remained determined to improve his mental game, even if he couldn't take a step.
"Every game, I watched what our corners were doing and what other team's corners were doing," he says. "I tried to take a little bit from everybody I was watching and make it my own. I think I'm in a great position now, because after you watch a whole bunch of people, then you get more reps and more playing time, it becomes easier. It's almost second nature, where you can go out and just react. It's just what you do."
The past two seasons have seen inconsistent play from the Huskies as a team, as high expectations have not always been matched. With record-breaking stars Cody Pickett and Reggie Williams now in the NFL, the identity of this year's team remains to be defined. Johnson, however, is sure that future stars will be born.
"Everyone realizes how great Reggie and Cody were, but in saying that, everyone understands that they're all here for a reason, too, and they need to make plays. That's what they were brought here to do. The young guys are excited to make those plays and make a name for themselves," he says.
Now entering his senior season, Johnson again finds himself preparing for a new experience. He is a captain on a team out to prove people wrong. Media critics expect a down year for Washington.
But that's why they play the games.
"Every team has to play us and we have to play every team," Johnson says. "Everyone's going to get our best shot, and we're going to get theirs. Everyone's going to remember you for your last year. We want to go out winners."
To solve the puzzle that is the Washington Huskies, start with the corner piece. Senior corner Derrick Johnson is a big piece to have in place.