Southern wide receiver Justin Morgan reflected on the Jaguars first workout in full pads during preseason camp in early August.
He was recalling the first time freshman cornerback Danny Johnson grabbed his attention.
“He was out there knocking everything down; no matter what we threw, he was knocking it down,” Morgan said before practice Tuesday. “That catches your eye in the first practice in full pads. You get a lot of confidence from that. That’s a ballplayer right there.”
Johnson is a key reason Southern is coming off one of its best defensive performances of the season in a 51-36 victory against Arkansas-Pine Bluff.
The points allowed are a bit misleading in regard to the defense, because one touchdown came on a fumble recovery in the end zone and the other came at the end of a 12-yard drive.
The return of fellow defensive backs Dionte McDuffy and D’Andre Woodland from academic limbo contributed to the defensive improvement, but Johnson continued to stand out. His 60-yard interception return set up a touchdown, he tied for the team lead with five tackles and he broke up two passes. He also chipped in a 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown.
Woodland and fellow cornerback Kevin King, who’s hoping to be academically reinstated this week, have helped tutor Johnson, who played at East Feliciana High School.
“He’s explosive, a great kid, willing to learn,” Woodland said. “He makes plays. He plays above his level. He’s proven better than a freshman. He listens. All he wants to do is learn. He’ll go far in life if he keeps staying hungry and willing to learn.
“I see great potential. His four years at Southern are going to be a great thing to see.”
Johnson leads the team with four pass breakups for the season, and he’s tied for the team lead with two interceptions.
“He seems like he’s been playing this game a long time,” linebacker Roshaud Turner said. “He’s a very exciting player to watch. When they throw to his side, you know right away he’s going to knock it down, or he might even make an interception. If the quarterback targets Danny’s side, it’s not going to be a complete pass.”
Johnson, who as a first-year player is not available for interviews, emerged as a starter early in fall camp and has stayed there, even when Woodland returned after a three-game absence.
“I think he’s a special talent,” coach Dawson Odums said. “When we were recruiting him coming out of high school you could see it. He played both ways and he played basketball also. We realized the type of talent that he possesses and we were fortunate to sign him.
“He has the ability. There’s no doubt about it. He’s a true freshman, so he’s only going to get better. Not only that, but he has great character. He’s one of those guys that wants to do the right things, and he wants to be the best at what he’s doing. I just take my hat off to him. If he stays humble, he’ll continue to grow.”
The defense looks like it has a chance to continue growing, now that McDuffy and Woodland are back and King might be returning.
With added personnel last week, the Jaguars were able to use multiple packages.
“We grouped our players together to fit a certain personnel group and just allowed more speed to be on the field,” Odums said. “We really allowed the young guys to cover.
“We’ve been playing a lot of zone, but Danny Johnson is one of those young guys that has man-to-man skills. We were able to do a little more from a secondary standpoint, which allowed us to be a little more aggressive with our front seven.”
Of the five games Southern has played against NCAA competition, last week’s was the best by the defense. The 366 total yards were the fewest in the five games and the 77 rushing yards (on 37 attempts) were not only the fewest, but it was the first time the Jaguars allowed fewer than 223 rushing yards.
“We really improved our run defense,” Odums said. “I think they know how they can play. Once you get those pieces back you’re able to tweak some things and really get back to your identity. Any time you can hold a team under 100 yards rushing, you feel good about playing defense.
“We had to step back on defense and say, ‘You know we’ve got some young guys, and let’s tailor it to what they can do.’ You can have a scheme, but sometimes people go down and you can’t keep forcing that scheme on other guys because they may not have the experience to play in that scheme. So we tailored it down and really coached these guys on the fundamentals and put them in position to take advantage of their strengths.”
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