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December 16, 2012
Opportunity is creeping up in a hurry for Rutgers redshirt freshman cornerback Tejay Johnson. He could find himself playing more of a role in the 2012 Russell Athletic Bowl, which could pave the way for a starting job in 2013.
Rutgers will graduate three cornerbacks this year in Brandon Jones, Marcus Cooper and Mason Robinson. There is also the possibility that Logan Ryan will leave early and enter the 2013 NFL Draft.
That would likely leave Johnson as the team's No.1 cornerback in the spring.
"I'm trying to be that guy right now. I'm focusing on the now," Johnson said. "Next year is exciting. But now I'm focusing on 3rd down and still getting a lot of reps with the two's. I'm just learning to get better right now."
Jones' injury in the regular season finale against Louisville enabled Johnson to see more playing time than usual in the secondary. And with Jones' status for the Russell Athletic Bowl still questionable, it could mean a repeat of that situation.
"Obviously Brandon Jones is still dealing with the injury. I'm trying to plug myself in," Johnson said. "I'm going to do the job I can and they'll see I'm the guy for that position."
Coincidentally, Jones has been instrumental in Johnson's development.
"Juice has been next to me all year, telling me what I can be, what to work on, things like that," Johnson said of Jones. "His locker is right next to mine. I was real sad to see him go down but it was an opportunity I had to take. I'm just excited and doing what I can for right now but I would love to see him play as well."
Jones had sort of a coming out party in a similar situation a few years ago in the St. Petersburg Bowl as a redshirt freshman. A first-quarter eye injury to Devin McCourty forced Jones to earn his most playing time up to that point in time.
Jones then played a backup role the following season before going on to start 25 consecutive games at cornerback. But Johnson could do even one better.
He is the early front runner to start at cornerback next season when he will be just a redshirt sophomore.
"I would love to do that," Johnson said. "In high school my sophomore year, I got thrown in at safety against Atlantic City after our safeties got beat. I got an interception and after that I played strong safety. Later I got moved to corner my senior year. But after that game, I stuck to defense. I'm hoping I can do the same thing and just build off of right now."
But is Johnson ready to be a starting cornerback?
"I'm very ready," he said. "Sitting behind these guys, they are very smart, very intelligent. Like today, we were in a meeting and Logan [Ryan] answered a question about the WILL [linebacker]. We just had all the DB's and somebody asked where No.20 [Khaseem Greene] should be and Logan just told us. That just shows how smart some of our players are. Logan is a junior right now, I want to know that kind of stuff by next year when I'm a redshirt sophomore. That's what I'm trying to do, just be a sponge and soak up all this knowledge."
Johnson had a solid season on special teams and forced a fumble on a kickoff during a 19-3 win over UConn.
"I felt like I should have had a forced fumble every game," Johnson said. "That's just the type of player I am."
Johnson is also taking that same approach when lining up in the defensive backfield.
"I feel like you have to be that guy where nothing is ever enough. I made a good play earlier today in coverage but at the end of the day I could have had a sandwich type of tackle in thud technique. If I could find a way to get my footwork better then I can get into a position to make that tackle. I was about a yard away. So I think about stuff like that. I think about the small things. I want to be the best player I can be."