TEMPE, Ariz. -- Since Todd Graham has taken over at Arizona State, his Sun Devil defense has become a "no fly zone" for opponents.
Over the last two seasons, ASU has intercepted 42 passes, which is the third highest total in the nation behind only Houston (44) and Oregon (43).
One of the keys to that success has been a veteran secondary filled with talented and opportunistic ballhawks. Playmakers like Keelan Johnson, Deveron Carr, Alden Darby, Osahon Irabor and Robert Nelson have tallied interceptions and All-Pac-12 recognition in that span.
Now they are all gone.
ASU lost three starters from last year's secondary, part of nine total lost starters from the 2013 defense. In a conference as explosive and pass-happy as the Pac-12, that raises a big concern in Tempe.
One player who can go a long way in assuaging those worries is redshirt freshman James Johnson.
Johnson came to Tempe last year as a three-star recruit from Upland High School in California. He made waves during fall camp, and was in the mix to earn playing time as true freshman.
“That’s what I intended," said Johnson said of playing as a true freshman. "All I can do is to work hard every single day and constantly.”
Ultimately, the senior-laden secondary and the emergence of Damarious Randall kept Johnson off the field, but lessons he took away while working with those veterans were immensely valuable.
“Volumes," Johnson said of what he learned. "How to be a pro each and every day, how to prepare week in and week out, and how to be consistent. Now I know what it takes to win from learning from those guys.”
Now bigger, stronger, and with a keener understanding of the mental aspects of the game, Johnson is looking to play a big role in 2014.
At 6-foot-2, and 200 pounds, Johnson has great athleticism and ball skills, which make him a potential fit at either safety spot or even the defense's SPUR position.
“Playing safety here, you have to do a variety of things," said Johnson. "For the amount of pressure we bring, it really pays to be a versatile player.”
The only known commodity in the defensive backfield is Randall, who emerged as a star at field safety. While he figures to remain there, Randall also has the ability to play corner, and may see time there if team needs require it.
After Randall, the most experienced safety is Laiu Moeakiola, who made six starts last season but at times struggled mightily in coverage. Redshirt freshman Marcus Ball is among the favorites to compete for a starting job at safety, but like Johnson, he redshirted last season. Likewise, Jayme Otomewo also redshirted in 2013. The team's other options on the backline are equally unproven. Junior Ezekiel Bishop has yet to make an impact at ASU, and the team welcomes in newcomers Das Tautalatasi, Armand Perry and Chad Adams.
Needless to say, the opportunity for Johnson to became a key role in the defense is there, and that fact is not lost on him.
“Any time you have those spots coming up, there’s always that competition," said Johnson. "As of right now, I’m just going to do my part, and keep giving my best effort.”
How Pac-12 ball compared to his expectations: “It was great. I saw how fast the game moved. I can’t speak for other conferences, but it was the fastest brand of football that I’ve ever seen. It really helped me to find out what I needed to do to get better at this level.”
His biggest challenges while redshirting: “Having a good understanding of what was going on. I know I did, as far as the schemes, but it was acting upon it. I feel like that year sitting out really did me justice.”
Where he improved most over the year: “My vision and the way I see the play develop. I can diagnose much, much faster now. I think I have a certain maturity that comes from a redshirt year. I feel a lot different now.”
Working with Coach Chris Ball: “We have great guys in our program from the top down. Coach Ball is one of the best guys, Coach Randolph, Coach Graham. They really train you how to succeed, not just in football, but in life.”
The focus of offseason work: “A lot of speed training. Getting bigger and more agile.”
His goals in 2014: “I just want to be able to impact this team. Whenever I find out my role, I want to do it to the best of my ability, and I know I will.”
What should fans expect from James Johnson in 2014? “A leader, on the field and off the field, as well as a person who is going to bring a lot of energy to this team.”