Rufus Johnson Jr. was in a hospital in early January, waiting for his daughter to be born, when he received the best news of his young NFL career.
After choosing him in the sixth round of the 2013 draft and placing him on the practice squad, the Saints called to say they were moving Johnson up to the 53-man roster mere days before a divisional playoff game at Seattle. There’d been an injury at Johnson’s position; the Saints required depth; and they trusted him to handle himself well if they needed him to play.
Ultimately, the Saints didn’t call on Johnson to appear in that season-ending defeat. But the promotion signified how much he’d grown during a year that had a difficult start. It had a much nicer ending, as Johnson received the Saints’ call and soon after welcomed his baby girl, Aubrey, on Jan. 6.
“She gives me life,” Johnson, 23, said of Aubrey. Of finally landing on the Saints’ roster, he said: “Effort never goes unnoticed.”
That’s a good thing in Johnson’s case. Effort was all he had for much of his rookie year.
After racking up 151/2 quarterback sacks and second-team Division II All-America honors in two seasons at Tarleton State as a hands-in-the-dirt defensive end, Johnson was asked to switch positions by the Saints. Move to outside linebacker and stand up, they told him.
The Saints believed Johnson’s 6-foot-5, 272-pound frame were ideal for the spot, from which they hoped he’d be able to either rush QBs or drop back to defend pass plays intended for either receivers or running backs.
But Johnson struggled to grasp the coverage schemes, assistant linebackers coach Brian Young said. He wasn’t as effective off the line of scrimmage, farther back from the ball.
“When you get lined up with your hands in the dirt, you know what you’re doing: You’re rushing the passer,” Young explained. “When ... you’re an outside backer ... you may have to go out and cover somebody. There’s a lot more to it.
“What Rufus did in college versus what he did here was a big change.”
Complicating matters was that Johnson was wrestling with his new responsibilities while coping with his dad’s death, which occurred early last summer. Rufus Johnson Sr. underwent kidney dialysis late in his life.
The younger Johnson reached the conclusion of his first training camp with the Saints but was left off the team’s roster. Added to the practice squad, he watched every other New Orleans player drafted in 2013 — safety Kenny Vaccaro, left tackle Terron Armstead, nose tackle John Jenkins and wide receiver Kenny Stills — started games and became core members on a team that won 11 regular-season games and one playoff contest.
“That pushed a lot out of me because obviously I didn’t want to be on the practice squad,” Johnson said.
Nonetheless, daily at practice, he closely observed outside linebacker Junior Galette, whose 12 regular-season sacks were the sixth-most in the NFL. He did the same with defensive end Cameron Jordan, whose 121/2 regular-season sacks were the league’s fifth-most and propelled him to his first Pro Bowl.
Johnson listened to pointers from them and other more established Saints defenders. He tried to mirror their technique and eventually succeeded at it.
“He works his butt off every day in practice, goes full tilt,” Young said. “He just gave us great looks every day. He started learning what to do and knew what to do.”
Then, outside linebacker Parys Haralson suffered a torn pectoral muscle in a wildcard playoff win at Philadelphia on Jan. 4 (he’s since recovered). Within a couple of days, Johnson received his double-dose of joyous news.
Naturally, Johnson is seeking to prolong his good fortune. At the end of the Saints’ season, he joined friend, teammate and veteran inside linebacker David Hawthorne at TCU for workouts with professional trainers there.
TCU is Hawthorne’s alma mater. It’s near Johnson’s hometown of Dallas.
The workouts — and some down time with Aubrey and his family — did Johnson well. During the team minicamp, which wrapped up Thursday, he was leaner and more muscular, Young said.
Also, in drills with the second-team defense, he was frequently allowed to creep up to the edge of the scrimmage line and put his hands in the dirt.
Johnson assured he was still committed to bolstering his pass-coverage skills because he realizes versatility is crucial in the NFL. Yet he couldn’t suppress a smile when talking about having his hands in the dirt as much as he did at minicamp.
“I feel a lot more explosive (like that),” Johnson said. “I feel like that’s my home.”