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The continuing saga of Daje Johnson
The talented but troubled playmaker may be running out of time to prove himself to Strong and the coaching staff.
It was never an issue of talent.
In 2011, Daje Johnson was a talented two-way player at Hendrickson HS in Pflugerville, TX. Originally a TCU commit (as a cornerback, no less), Johnson began attracting countrywide attention after scoring 45 total touchdowns his senior year and posting a record SPARQ score of 146.5 at The Opening. Mack Brown proceeded to extend Johnson an offer one month before Signing Day, promising him a playmaking role in the offense. For Daje, the choice was a no-brainer - by the time NSD rolled around, he was dead-set on becoming a Longhorn. The reason was simple:
"They want me on offense... They feel like I can do a lot with the ball in my hands. They see me as a very explosive player and don't want to waste that on defense. That is why all the offensive coaches came to talk to me."
It didn't take long for Daje to impress Brown and the coaching staff at training camp. Johnson was given a hybrid RB/WR position (similar to Ramonce Taylor, another troubled but extremely talented footballer). Brown's goals for Daje were simple; get the ball in his hands, then sit back and watch the fireworks.
Johnson's first year at the 40 Acres swung wildly between extremes. When Texas needed an explosive play, Johnson was usually good for one. There were the highs:
And the lows:
For a starstruck freshman, academics can sometimes be tough to keep track of. And Johnson was no different.
Heading into 2013, the coaching staff had high hopes that Johnson would shake off any lingering schoolwork-related issues and become a consistent cog in the Longhorns' high-powered offense from the previous year. With Marquise Goodwin and D.J. Monroe gone, Johnson was poised to take over the slot receiver position and get many more touches.
And initially, Daje seemed to rise to the challenge.
But that didn't last long.
Once again, Daje had run into academic issues.
As the Longhorns head into 2014, Johnson is one of the few consistent weapons for Texas on the offensive side of the ball. His speed and athleticism allow him to break the game wide open in an instant, and his 9.6 yards-per-touch career average leads all Longhorns players. Texas' 2014 offense will need every last bit of explosiveness Daje Johnson has to offer. And this season will be extremely critical for Daje - Tavon Austin's success in the pros will weigh heavily on his mind as he attempts to excite talent spotters with another breakout season.
Unfortunately, sitting on the sideline isn't the best way to impress NFL scouts. Yet that's what Johnson will be doing come August 30th, when the Longhorns take on the Mean Green for the first game of the season. Of course, it started the same way it always had - in February, as spring camp was starting up, Johnson was among a group of players who were pulled aside by Charlie Strong. The message was simple; I've got my eye on you. Break the rules, and there will be consequences.
Brown's goals for Daje were simple; get the ball in his hands, then sit back and watch the fireworks.
Six months later, the hammer dropped; Texas announced that Johnson would be suspended for at least one game, along with two other potential starters. Ironically, this was good news - many had speculated that Johnson would be dismissed from the program, along with fellow running back Joe Bergeron. At a Thursday press conference, Strong noted that he didn't know how long Johnson and the other suspended players would be out for. When asked whether the junior had 'figured things out', Strong's reply was short, sweet, and discouraging:
"That's his decision."
Is Strong being unfairly unsympathetic? Hardly, although at this point he has every right to be. In fact, he seems as eager as anybody to get Johnson back on the field. Strong has raved about Daje's exceptional talents in the past, and Thursday was no different.
"He's a special player. He's so explosive with the ball. He can get the ball in his hands and he's one of those guys who can make people miss and break away at any time."
So that's the bad news. The good news? Thanks to Strong, Daje is closer than he's ever been to resolving his academic issues. Day by day, Johnson has been inching himself closer to the exit of Strong's doghouse - that much has been clear. In fact, the lack of recent news regarding Johnson has been encouraging - many had speculated that Johnson would end up as attrition fodder sooner or later. The upcoming season could make or break Johnson's future as a Texas Longhorn - and no one is more acutely aware of this than Coach Strong.
"You never walk into a situation where you're looking for issues and you're trying to get rid of guys... It's more about developing players. But when you set rules and say this is the way things are going to be done and then guys continuously challenge you on those policies, then something has to be done. If you talk enough and you do nothing about it, then other players are going to eventually say, ‘Hey, why is he even standing there saying it? He's not going to do anything about it."
Translation: Figure it out, Daje. Texas is counting on you.
Desmond Jackson tired of Texas defense being called soft
The defense has something to prove this season, according to the team leader.
The senior Texas Longhorns defensive tackle tapped the podium to emphasize each heartfelt word on Wednesday.
"I'm tired of everybody saying that Texas' defense is soft," Desmond Jackson said. "That's the No. 1 thing that I've been hearing."
And certainly for good reason.
The defense has come under sharp criticism the last two years after turning into a sieve against the run in 2012 and conceding a school-record 550 rushing yards to BYU last September, leading to the firing of defensive coordinator Manny Diaz.
Weeks before, Kansas State linebacker Tre Walker had made headlines at Big 12 Media Days when he said of Texas, "They kind of laid down a little bit. That's nothing to say about their character. That's just what they do."
Just what they do.
To hear Jackson tell it now, Walker was not and is not the only person to feel that way, especially about the defense.
Jackson thinks that's all about to change, however, when asked about whether the defense will surprise people.
"Yeah, because nobody has really been talking about us and we've been putting in a lot of work and effort into it. I know that not only me, but also the rest of the defense is just ready to go out there and show everybody what we have."
Interestingly enough, the Horns aren't just fighting a battle against the offenses of opponents or against the stats, they're fighting a battle against perception. And perception often differs from reality.
Even after the terrible start and after being blown out in the three of the final four games, the defense finished the 2013 season ranked No. 35 in defensive F/+. While not particularly impressive overall, when put into context, it was a significant accomplishment for the defense, which lost linebacker Jordan Hicks in the fourth game, defensive tackle Chris Whaley against West Virginia, and linebacker Steve Edmond against Texas Tech.
In 2012, the narrative held the the Horns put the school's worst defense in history on the field and though the defense gave up more yards and more points that season than in 2013, it ranked No. 40 nationally in F/+.
But those are just further reasons to point out why the unadjusted numbers are so misleading -- in contrast to the F/+ ranking, Texas finished No. 89 nationally in yards per play allowed.
And Jackson believes that giving up some yardage and giving up some points isn't the same thing as being soft.
"I feel like most of the time people call soft and it's that we weren't fundamentally sound on this play, or we misinterpreted what concept were running on this play," Jackson said. "That doesn't mean we're soft.
"To say that we're soft means that we were just putting on the pads, going out there and getting blown off the ball all the time," he added. "That's not the case."
After all, the defense unquestionably showed up in games against Oklahoma and TCU, holding the Sooners and Horned Frogs well under 300 yards of total offense. In Fort Worth, the Horns stifled their new conference rival to the tune of 3.90 yards per play.
But those are raw numbers again and the point remains that the defense finished in or near the top third of the country in F/+ both of the last two seasons -- rankings that hardly suggest a soft team.
In looking back at last season, the ultimate finish for the defense in the nation's top third in defensive F/+ was due to replacement defensive coordinator Greg Robinson.
When Robinson took over for Diaz following the debacle in Provo, one of the first things he emphasized to turn the defense around was fundamentals, the little details that were apparently quite lacking under Diaz.
The work in that facet of the game continues under the new staff, according to Jackson.
"We did it every day," Jackson said. "That's all we did in individuals. All we do is fundamental stuff. Then we transfer what we do in individuals to 9-on-7, we transfer that to when we go into team. So fundamentally sound is what the coaches are preaching to us."
For a team that struggled to tackle, struggled to line up correctly, struggled to read keys, and struggled to maintain gap control overall, the improvement of basic aspects of the game was necessary nearly across the board.
Despite the ultimately respectable finishes both seasons, it was clearly a defense that got by mostly on talent.
Now, with the head coach actively jumping into drills and helping players out on both sides of the ball, it's as if the Longhorns have added an extra extremely high-level coach to the staff compared to last season with Mack Brown.
And while fall camp optimism pervades any suggestions that the other members of the new staff are better teachers than the old group, the gains in experience by the formerly young players who suffered the trails by fire in 2013 and 2014 is not something to underestimate.
There was also a crippling lack of trust over the last two seasons defensively. Players didn't trust each other because they couldn't be sure that their teammates would execute their respective assignments.
Having spent fall camp living together in the dorms and instilling the type of fundamentals that allow players to trust one another, Jackson said he believes that there's a new type of camaraderie present when asked what type of defense the Horns will put on the field this season.
"Just that a defense that is more of a family this year than any other time," Jackson said. "That's all I can really say about it. All I can say is that we are more of a family now than we were a couple of years ago, or last year. We are closer. As a family, you care about each other more and want to see everyone succeed more than yourself."
After all the criticism, Jackson feels like the team finally has something to prove.
"We aren't really that worried about it, but to call it 'soft' after all of the hard work we've put in, I just feel like we have more to prove this year than we did in previous years," he said. "That's all we've been hearing for the last two years, 'Texas' defense is soft, they can't stop the run, they can't stop the pass.' All we are worried about is just going out there and showing everybody all the hard work and effort we put into it this year. We are ready to go."
With one of the nation's top defensive lines, a linebacker group that has earned their experience the hard way over the last two years, and a secondary that could feature the return of a playmaking Quandre Diggs, the Horns could field a defense good enough to carry to team.
In the quest for redemption, that would go long way toward changing perceptions.
Not to mention winning football games.