James Johnson a rising star in ASU's 'No Fly Zone'

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ASU safety James Johnson (Christian Petersen Getty Images Sport) ASU safety James Johnson (Christian Petersen Getty Images Sport)
James Johnson (Christian Petersen Getty Images Sport) James Johnson (Christian Petersen Getty Images Sport)
(AP Photo/Rick Scuteri) (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)
(AP Photo/Rick Scuteri) (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)
TEMPE, AZ -- Since the day he took over as head coach at Arizona State, Todd Graham has held Pat Tillman up as the ideal for his program. In short, the commitment to excellence on the field, in the classroom, and in the community must be second-to-none.

Two years ago, as part of that effort, Graham rolled out an honor for those select few who reached that standard by allowing them to wear a camouflage jersey adorned with Tillman's No. 42 during practice. 

Achieving that honor does not come easy. That year, four players earned that right. Last year, no one did. When it makes an appearance, it's a big deal. 

So when redshirt sophomore safety James Johnson walked into the locker to room to get ready for last Saturday's practice, he was taken aback when he saw the No. 42. 

"When I saw it hanging in my locker, I was a little bit emotional," said Johnson. "I'm humbled to wear the 42. Not a lot of guys get to wear it. It's an extreme honor."

It's also a responsibility for Johnson to continue to put in the kind of work that earned him the jersey in the first place.

"It'd almost impossible to come here and not be intrigued by the Pat Tillman story," said Johnson. "I'm sure every guy has had the moment where they are interested to find out more about what he stood for. That is something that I've really taken personally. Everything that he embodied is what we want to bring to this program."

Wearing the No. 42 is the latest sign that the Upland, Calif. native is a rising star for the Sun Devil defense. After redshirting in 2013, Johnson saw action in all 13 games last season, including a pair of starts. As the top safety reserve behind Damarious Randall and Jordan Simone, Johnson tallied 25 tackles, three tackles-for-loss, two pass breakups and one sack. He also learned the importance of always being ready.

"There were a lot of learning experiences, definitely with preparation," said Johnson. "Be ready when your number is called. I felt like I learned a lot about that. Bring it every play."

That preparation was put to the test in the regular season final against Arizona, when Johnson was called upon to make a surprising start alongside Randall when Simone was sidelined due to an injury. Johnson's performance in that game—five tackles and one sack—gave him a key confidence boost.

"I was preparing like I was going to start all week. I was ready," Johnson said. "I tried to do my best to help the team, and unfortunately we couldn't get it done. I'm trying to build off of that for this year."

Johnson has built off that performance with a strong showing during spring practices. Taking over for the departed Randall at boundary safety, Johnson has run with the starting defense from the outset and has earned high praise for his play.

"I feel good. I feel like I've competed every single day," Johnson said of his spring performance. "I can definitely do better. I'm never satisfied. I'm not even close to accomplishing what I want to accomplish."

Last year, Randall and Simone formed a potent tandem at safety. Each player racked up over 100 total tackles, and the duo forced eight turnovers. The self-proclaimed "Batman and Robin" duo set a high bar, but the developing rapport between Johnson and Simone is off to a good start.

"It's great. We have great chemistry. That's my guy," Johnson said of Simone.

Like Randall before him, the 6-foot-1, 192-pound Johnson brings an athletic and versatile presence to the safety position. His speed, physicality, and nose for the ball allows the defense to utilize him in a variety of ways.

"My mentality is to hit like a linebacker and cover like a corner," Johnson said. "You have to be a jack-of-all-trades. We play man, come off the edge, and that really suits what I like to do."

Despite having just the 13 games under his belt, Johnson is also emerging as a leader on the young Sun Devil defense. He's helping to get everyone on the same page, something that is already paying off this spring.

"This year, we have 100 percent of the guys bought in to what we want to do," Johnson said. "That's paid dividends this spring, especially in the linebacking corps. We have young guys stepping up. We get into the grind, but every single day, we are getting it going."

As he continues his ascent, Johnson is hoping to continue the secondary's recent success as one of the Pac-12's most disruptive defensive units. 

The "Bird Gang", as they've come to be known, has ranked second in the FBS in both turnover margin (+0.88 per game) and interceptions (1.4 per game) over the last three seasons. During that span, ASU has had eight different defensive backs take home 10 All-Pac-12 honors, including three first-team selections over the last two seasons.

Even with that success, Johnson thinks that the 2015 Sun Devil secondary can do better.

"We want to take it to a completely different level," Johnson said of the secondary. "We take about having a presence, where every single play, the secondary is impacting the quarterback or making the plays on the ball. 

"All great defenses have that secondary, and that's what we want to be: the best in the country."