Wednesday, November 10, 2004
DJ mixes up the hits in Texas
By Bruce Feldman ESPN The Magazine
Despite compiling last Saturday's gaudiest stat line -- 18 tackles (14 solos) and three tackles for losses -- the most impressive thing Derrick Johnson did was something that didn't show up in the stat sheet.
Johnson had NFL scouts shaking their heads when he tracked down Oklahoma State's speedy Vernand Morency all the way from the other side of the field. Johnson got to Morency right as he neared the pylon on a 68-yard TD play on a screen pass. Truth is, these kinds of eye-popping efforts are what the scouts -- and everyone else who has seen Texas play this year -- have come to expect from the 6-4, 235-pound senior linebacker.
Derrick Johnson may be the best defensive player in the country.
Johnson has been a sideline-to-sideline terror this fall for Texas and should take home the Butkus, Bednarik and every other award he's eligible for. Johnson's been so much better than every other linebacker the Butkus committee shouldn't even bother naming other finalists. He's been that spectacular.
The guy does everything for the UT defense, shining against the run and in pass coverage. He leads UT with 107 tackles, 14 behind the line and a school-record eight forced fumbles. "This is a rare kind of guy," says UT defensive coordinator Greg Robinson, who came to Texas after years in the NFL. "They just don't come around very often."
How does Mack Brown describe him? "He's just different," says the Texas coach, who has produced more than his share of NFL defensive talent (Casey Hampton, Shaun Rogers, Quentin Jammer, etc.) "He dominates games, but he's also added great leadership ability. He changes games. Derrick's as good of a defensive player as I've ever seen."
Johnson could've left for the NFL last season. He admits he was real close to jumping, but says he wasn't ready to leave. "I just wasn't pleased with the level I was at," he says. With the arrival of Robinson, Johnson has become a more complete linebacker.
"He helped me put the icing on the cake," Johnson says of Robinson. "I'm more under control now and that's actually helped to speed up my game."
Scary thought. "He's the best linebacking prospect I've seen since LaVar Arrington," says one scout. "Actually, he's probably even better than that because he covers and plays off the ball better than Arrington could."
Johnson figures to do something no Longhorn has ever done in the storied UT football history -- win the Butkus Award. It's something he hopes will spark a tradition since top linebacking prospects are drawn to places with "pedigrees." For the most part UT linebackers have traditionally been more pluggers, tough-guy role players while the big-play NFL specimen type linebacking talent went off to places like Texas A&M. That may change for kids wanting to become the next DJ.
"I'm really trying to leave something behind here," Johnson says. In the process he's also connected with another UT linebacking great from another era, Tommy Nobis. The two have spoken several times, talking about legacies and the game within the game. But mostly it's Johnson asking Nobis about stardom and how to be a leader. "The big thing he's told me," Johnson says, "is 'never live off what you did in the past.'"
Urban Meyer, Tommy Tuberville and Barry Alvarez will probably get most of the Coach of the Year talk, but Iowa's Kirk Ferentz deserves to be right there in that mix too. Iowa is 7-2, despite having lost six running backs to injuries -- four of them to ACLs. But after beating Purdue, the Hawkeyes have won sixth consecutive Big Ten games.
Iowa's D is playing great. Jonathan Babineaux especially. The agile DT notched a career-high three sacks, and had five TFLs as the Iowa defense held Purdue to 21 points. Babineaux leads the Big Ten with 15.5 tackles for loss on the year and is tied for third in the Big Ten with six sacks. The Texas native anchors a Hawkeyes defense that leads the conference (and ranks fourth nationally) by allowing only 68 rushing yards per game.
This may sound a bit off, but an offensive lineman probably should win the ACC's Offensive Player of the Year MVP. That's Virginia's massive Elton Brown, who leads a terrific O-line that is fueling a dominant running attack that absolutely mauled a good Maryland D last week. UVa piled up 26 first downs and held the ball for nearly 39 minutes in the game. The Cavs 295 rushing yards were the most the Terps had allowed all season. (In its two previous games against Clemson and Florida State, Maryland surrendered just 86 rushing yards combined.)
UVa has now rushed for at least 225 yards in seven of its eight games and ranks sixth nationally in rushing offense with nearly 255 yards per game. Brown will again state his case when Miami comes to town, and the 'Canes are really hurting. They are 3.5-point underdogs and will be trying to avoid becoming the first Miami team to lose three consecutive games since 1997.
Granted this has been a great year for true freshmen (Adrian Peterson, Mike Hart, Ted Ginn Jr., etc), but also for JC transfers. None of the JCs though have been any better than Tennessee's powerhouse DT Jesse Mahelona. Last week against Notre Dame, Mahelona again was a force, making five tackles for minus yards including two straight in the third quarter.
Parting shot: The Big 12 North is worse than even the Big East. It's such a disgrace the conference commissioner should bail out the BCS brass and tell the North division champ to stay home and instead invite Utah to come play Oklahoma for the right to play in the Orange Bowl. Obviously it won't happen, but we bet the Utes would be game and it would help make OU's case that it is as deserving as Auburn to play in the title game.
Bruce Feldman is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His first book Cane Mutiny: How the Miami Hurricanes Overturned the Football Establishment is out in bookstores. He can be reached at email@example.com.