NC State's Johnson ready for leading role in secondary

February, 24, 2009
2/24/09
5:00
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich

Clem Johnson's time at Valley Forge Military College wasn't all that different from the structured environment he's found at NC State.

Considering coach Tom O'Brien has a military background, Johnson said he felt right at home when he transferred last summer.

"He definitely does not play," Johnson said. " ... That's one of the reasons the transformation was so smooth."

Still, it could have been a little smoother had Johnson not broken his jaw before the season even began, and sprained his ankle on Nov. 22 at North Carolina just when he was starting to make a comeback. With the loss of two starters in the secondary who were among the top five tacklers on the team -- boundary corner Jeremy Gray and safety J.C. Neal -- the Pack needs Johnson to stay healthy in his final year of eligibility, as he is expected to be a starter in an otherwise inexperienced secondary.

"With me being a senior, I guess some people are expecting me to do a lot better than what I did last year," he said. "A lot of people saw what I can do, coming off my injury, being able to perform as a transfer ... I think a lot of people have higher expectations for me since I'm going through the winter workouts this year, and I'm able to learn the playbook and have better preparation than I did last year."

Johnson recovered from his broken jaw sooner than expected, and started five of the final six games last year. His return gave the defense a much-needed boost and helped propel the Pack to their four-game winning streak. Johnson missed the Nov. 29 win over Miami because of his ankle, but started in the Papajohns.com Bowl.

Johnson has had a strong winter so far and said he's getting closer to being 100 percent. Despite his injuries, Johnson still played in eight games and made 40 tackles, two interceptions and three pass breakups. Safety Jimmaul Simmons and cornerback Dominique Ellis were the backups at their respective positions last year and will compete for starting jobs. Safety Javon Walker, who was a starter before he tore his ACL, will be back in the fall and add to the competition.

Johnson was a running, athletic quarterback who also played defensive back at Valley Forge because he said he didn't want to play quarterback in college. Because he joined NC State late, he was forced to compensate for what he didn't know in the playbook with his athleticism. This year, he said he's much more comfortable knowing the defense.

"That's pretty much all I'm worried about, besides academics and school," he said. "I'm really excited about getting everything started back up with spring ball, and hitting the weights. I'm just trying to prepare myself and give 100 percent through winter workouts and get ready for the season."

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