NCF Nation: Robert Johnson

Spring practice is all about working the kinks out and getting guys back into the regular football flow.

It's also time for some of the more unheralded players to try and make a name for themselves.

Four springs are in the books in the SEC, and here are some under-the-radar guys who came up big:

Florida

QB Tyler Murphy -- He wasn’t even the favorite to be the No. 2 quarterback in Gainesville, but had the best spring game of the quarterbacks and improved mightily. Murphy finished with a game-high 68 yards and a touchdown on 7-of-11 passing.

WR Quinton Dunbar -- Coach Will Muschamp said Dunbar made the biggest plays in practice this spring. He had two catches for 45 yards, including a 29-yard catch-and-run in Florida’s spring game.

LSU

WR Kadron Boone -- Boone showed he has the speed and athleticism to be a threat in the Tigers’ offense. He’s unproven, but had a solid spring. Boone finished LSU’s spring game with a game-high four catches for 77 yards.

CB Tharold Simon -- Throughout the spring, Simon drew praise from coach Les Miles, who said he’s competing for regular time in LSU’s cornerback rotation. Though he recorded just one tackle in the spring game, he kept some of the tightest coverage on the field.

Mississippi State

QB Dylan Favre -- The redshirt freshman went 17-of-26 passing for 199 yards, with a touchdown and an interception, and also carried the ball 10 times for a game-high 41 yards in the Bulldogs’ spring game. Chris Relf is the starter, but Favre provides some nice depth at the position.

WR Robert Johnson -- Johnson made strides as a part of Mississippi State’s talent receiving corps. He led all receivers with seven receptions during the spring game and finished with 74 yards, including a 24-yard touchdown.

South Carolina

WR DeAngelo Smith -- South Carolina was looking for some big-play ability to complement Alshon Jeffery and might have found it in Smith. He was named the offensive player of the spring for the Gamecocks and caught three touchdowns in the spring game. One went for 62 yards.

OL A.J. Cann -- The redshirt freshman entered the spring as the No. 2 left guard, but also pushed for time at right guard. He could be a viable option at either position for the Gamecocks.

Instant analysis: Utah 37, Cal 27

December, 23, 2009
12/23/09
11:40
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Utah’s 37-27 win over Cal continues the Mountain West’s bowl winning streak and is another dominating performance over a team from the Pac-10. BYU defeated Oregon State 44-20 on Tuesday. The win further lends credibility to the Mountain West Conference and will all but guarantee the Utes yet another Top 25 finish.

How the game was won: After falling into a 14-0 hole midway through the first half, Utah quarterback Jordan Wynn settled down and proceeded to lead the Utes to 27 unanswered points while having the best game of his young career. Cal couldn’t get anything going on offense and Utah dialed up the pressure on quarterback Kevin Riley and the Bears’ receivers continually dropped passes.

Turning point: After starting with 10 plays and 47 yards through its first two possessions of the first half, Utah turned it around and finished its last four possessions of the first half with 32 plays for 210 yards and 24 unanswered points to take a 24-14 halftime lead from which Cal was never able to recover.

Stat of the game: Utah true freshman quarterback Jordan Wynn completed 26 of 36 passes for 338 yards, his first career 300-yard game, but 234 of those yards came after the catch.

Player of the game: Utah free safety Robert Johnson was a stellar defensive force from the opening kick. He popped two Cal receivers early to set the tone, then tipped a ball that led to a pick-6 by Stevenson Sylvester. Johnson capped his evening by grabbing an interception late in the fourth quarter.

Record performance: With the win, Utah notches a 10-win season for just the fifth time in school history. This is the second time in school history that the Utes have had back-to-back 10-win seasons. In 2003, the Utes won 10 games and then turned around to win 12 in 2004. Last year, Utah went 13-0. This is also Utah’s ninth consecutive bowl win, which ties it with USC for second all-time and puts the Utes two wins behind Florida State.

Three keys: No. 16 Utah at No. 4 TCU

November, 13, 2009
11/13/09
11:54
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It's a little more than 24 hours away from the big Mountain West clash between TCU and Utah in Fort Worth.

Each team has a lot on the line, including a potential BCS berth. TCU has lost three straight to Utah and quarterback Andy Dalton has not fared well in these games. Below are three keys to ensure each team’s success on Saturday.

TCU

1. Get a passing touchdown early: As noted above, TCU quarterback Andy Dalton has not played well against the Utah defense. In the past two games against the Utes, he has no touchdowns and six interceptions. However, Dalton has been playing with a lot of confidence during the past month and getting him an early passing touchdown will only help him stay positive against the Utes.

2. Rattle Wynn: Utah true freshman quarterback Jordan Wynn will be making only his second start, so the key for the TCU defense will be to get into the backfield and rattle him early. He’s a sharp passer, so the Frogs don’t want to give him any time to get comfortable or gain confidence. They need to put him under pressure and get some turnovers to make sure the Utes don’t get into an offensive rhythm.

3. Don’t use revenge as motivation: TCU is upset about the last three seasons, but that shouldn’t be driving them in this game. There are a lot of things at stake and the Frogs have been good about compartmentalizing that stuff and focusing on the task at hand. If they get too caught up in the revenge factor, they might get too emotional and not stick the fundamental things they need to do to win the game.

UTAH

1. Get in Dalton’s head: Ther’s something about Utah’s scheme that Dalton doesn’t like and the Utes have to use that to their advantage. Safety Robert Johnson has two interceptions against Dalton in the past two contests and already has five this year. Johnson has a couple different options. He can either jump some routes, like he’s done before, or force Dalton to key in on one side of the field giving the rest of the secondary an advantage.

2. Limit special teams: The one area where TCU has greatly improved this season is special teams, so the Utes are going to have to be mindful where they kick the ball both on kickoffs and punts. Jeremy Kerley has been one of the best in the country on returns and the field position he puts the Frogs in has been one of the reasons the offense has been so successful this season. Utah is one of the worst in the country in punt and kick return yardage allowed.

3. Take the pressure off of Wynn: Utah’s young quarterback is going to be amped up for this game, so it’s going to be up to players such as Eddie Wide, David Reed, Jereme Brooks and Zane Beadles to keep Wynn focused and take some of the pressure off him early. TCU is going to come after Wynn early, so getting the young quarterback confidence and piece of mind with the offensive blocking will be key to the Utes offensive success.
Posted by ESPN.com's Graham Watson

Robert Johnson will be in the forefront of quarterback Andy Dalton's mind when No. 4 TCU and No. 16 Utah square off this weekend in a pivotal Mountain West Conference matchup in Fort Worth.
Steve Dykes/Getty Images
Robert Johnson leads the Utes with five interceptions.

The senior safety has had an interception against Dalton in each of the past two meetings -- both losses for the Horned Frogs. In the past two games against Utah, Dalton has thrown six interceptions and no touchdowns; a score has decided both games.

As a senior, Johnson is having his best campaign. He leads the Utes with five interceptions, including one he returned for a touchdown. He has two fumble recoveries, one he returned for a score and 46 tackles, including five tackles for loss.

Johnson said he came into his senior season wanting to not only prove that he was the best safety in the conference, but also that the Utah secondary wasn't going to fall off just because it lost stars Sean Smith and Bryce McCain from last year's undefeated team.

“Some people were saying we were questionable,” Johnson said of the secondary. “I had to come out and help the corners and give them just a little faith that I'm going to be there and I'm going to help them whenever they need me. Earlier in the season, we weren't on the same page, but we're on the same page now and things are working out good for us.”

Johnson's path to a stellar senior season started against Alabama in the Sugar Bowl at the end of last season. He had two interceptions in the game and helped the Utes to a thrilling and unexpected 31-17 win.

Because of Johnson's efforts, opposing teams are trying to stay away from him and are altering their game plans, which coach Kyle Whittingham said is helping the other players on the field.

“He has been a key to our success,” Whittingham said. “Really, his presence in the deep middle of the field and what he does for us by discouraging what offenses can do is as important as what he does. Offenses are very reluctant to put the ball anywhere in his area and that really cuts the field down for the other 10 defenders. Even though some weeks his stats might not be impressive, what he gives us with his presence back there and how that affects opposing offenses has been a big plus for us.”

Johnson hasn't had an interception since Oct. 17 against UNLV. Against Colorado State the game before that, he had three interceptions on three consecutive plays to help preserve a 24-17 win.

While Johnson understands that Saturday's game could be the most pivotal of the season, he said he's trying not to make it bigger than it is and he's telling his younger teammates to do the same. The Utes have defeated TCU all but once since the Horned Frogs joined the Mountain West Conference.

In 2005, the year of TCU's only Mountain West title, the Frogs needed overtime to outlast the Utes 23-20.

“There's been a couple times where a lot of people have said this is one of the biggest games of the year or whatever, but you've got to understand that you've got to come in and play,” Johnson said. “The coaches always tell me that I've got to be the eraser out there. It's my senior year and I'm just trying my hardest to kind of show why I'm appreciated in the conference as a first-team safety and I'm trying to help my team win by making some plays. Right now, I just feel that it's starting off real good for me and I've got to just end it on a good note.”

Utah midseason report

October, 20, 2009
10/20/09
6:30
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Posted by ESPN.com’s Graham Watson

UTAH UTES (5-1, 2-0 MWC)

The 2009 Utah team tried desperately in the offseason to distance itself from the undefeated 2008 team, but this team hasn’t strayed too far from where that one left off. Although the Utes already have suffered a loss and likely won’t repeat for a BCS bowl berth, it’s still very much in the hunt for a repeat Mountain West title. The Utes haven’t played its biggest competition yet in BYU and TCU, but those games likely will decide who walks away with the Mountain West crown.

Offensive MVP

Terrance Cain, QB: The junior college transfer won the starting job during fall camp and has played well enough not to let it go. Cain ranks 18th in the country with 273.17 yards of total offense per game. He’s also the Utes second-leading rusher, which has taken the pressure off starter Eddie Wide, who was thrust into the starting role after Matt Asiata suffered a season-ending injury.

Defensive MVP

Robert Johnson, FS: Johnson leads the nation in interceptions with five, including one he returned for a touchdown. He had three consecutive interceptions in the final three drives during a 24-17 win over Colorado State. Johnson’s .83 interceptions per game ranks No. 1 in the nation.

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