Johnson feeling at home outside
GREENVILLE — Come September Derrell Johnson will be asked to play in his third different role in the Pirates defense in as many years and this time around he and the East Carolina coaching staff feel they have found the right one.
The 6-1, 263-pounder started off his Pirates career as an undersized 4-3 defensive end where his primary role was to rush the passer and stop the run. In 2011, ECU changed to a 3-4 defense, and though Johnson still played end, his main objective was to absorb blockers so that the linebackers could make plays.
This year, Johnson will be the one making the plays as he has moved to weakside linebacker where all the skills he developed in his previous two seasons should help ease the athletic rising junior’s transition to his new spot.
“This year we are going to put him in situations that are gong to showcase his talent, and that’s putting him in some one-on-ones on tackles, backs and whoever else wants to step up,” ECU defensive coordinator Brian Mitchell said. “As whole, we are going to get a defensive end that runs like a linebacker that can play over the tight end and over the tackle with great leverage and be able to make plays.”
As a true freshman, Johnson started in 11 games and tallied 40 tackles but only one sack. In his sophomore season Johnson got the starting nod in all 12 of ECU’s contests and accrued 39 tackles while upping his sack total to three.
As a weakside linebacker, Johnson’s sack total is expected to skyrocket as he will be looked upon to be one of the team’s primary pass rushers and Mitchell feels confident the Maryland native is up for the task.
“Derrell is probably as good a linebacker you’re going to see in America and I don’t care what school you’re going to.” Mitchell said. “He’s an outstanding athletic guy that can bend and run and be explosive and play with great pad level. And the most impressive thing is that he has a high football IQ.”
Though the move was the coaching staff’s idea, Johnson said he loves his new position.
“I definitely like it better. I get to use my speed and my strength more, that’s the main thing,” Johnson said.
Instead of attacking the offense with his hands on the ground Johnson will get to stand up, and though he said a lot of the pass rush techniques are similar, he will be at more of an advantage because he can line up on the edge of the offense.
Also helping sway the competitive scales in his favor is the fact that he will face more one-one-one pass rushing situations against running backs, a thought brought a Kool-Aid-wide smile to Johnson’s face.
“That’s where the fun part comes in,” Johnson said. “I love contact. I love being able to get one of those guys on the edge and being able to give him a shoulder and a little bit of a move.”
While rushing the passer is nothing new for Johnson, covering passes is, however, you wouldn’t be able to tell from watching him at practice.
“He’s been outstanding. There’s no weakness in the young man’s ability to go out and do the job we’re asking him to do,” Mitchell said. “From Day One he looked natural at it all the drops.”
Johnson’s path to starting WLB does not come unimpeded. First, he must try to unseat incumbent Chris Baker, who started seven games last season as a junior and tallied 32 tackles and 1.5 sacks.
As the Pirates prepare for their Purple and Gold game this Saturday, Baker has a leg up on Johnson because he already has year’s worth of knowledge at the position. However, Johnson is gaining ground fast.
“Right now he’s going to be on the football field,” Mitchell said. “How many reps he gets is going to be predicated on how much effort and time he’s putting into his position. There’s great competition at that position between him and Chris Baker and that’s only going to make them both better.”