The Kansas University football defense has averaged 8.25 interceptions the past four seasons.
Isaiah Johnson, a sophomore junior college transfer ranked first on the depth chart at strong safety, has averaged 8.5 interceptions in his past two seasons as a defensive back.
Sure, he’ll be facing tougher competition in the Big 12 than in high school or junior college, but he brought with him the instincts that made him pick off three passes in a high school game as a senior, and three more in a game in his lone season of juco football.
Johnson’s ability to follow instructions and carry out assignments with attention to detail will get him on the field. His instincts for making interceptions give him a chance to stand out in games.
“To tell you the truth,” assistant secondary coach Scott Vestal said, “there are a lot of things you can coach. You can coach the scheme. You can coach the footwork. You can put them in the right position. Certain guys, when they get their hands on the ball, they can make a play.”
Johnson is one of those guys.
“We always say, ‘Do your job, do your job, do your job,’” Vestal said. “You’ll never hear me say, ‘Hey, go make a play.’ Do your job and the play develops and they’ll make themselves.”
But it’s deflating for a coaching staff and a defensive huddle when a defensive back does everything right, the ball ends up in his hands, and he drops it, such as a play during Monday’s practice that Vestal cited.
“A guy like Isaiah, he does have a knack for just being in the right area and when the ball comes his way, he plucks it,” Vestal said.
Players who do things instinctively sometimes have difficulty explaining how they do them because they never thought much about the how. They just do it. In soccer, certain players just have an instinct for scoring goals. Wayne Gretzky wasn’t the fastest scorer in hockey, but he always ended up in the right place at the right time to give himself goal opportunities.
“With me, it’s just reading the quarterback’s arm and anticipating the ball really fast,” Johnson said. “I always try to catch the ball at the highest point. I use my hands, not my body.”
Johnson’s three-interception game against Ellsworth earned him national junior college player of the week honors. He finished the season with eight and drew scholarship offers from Texas Tech and Illinois. Missouri and Wisconsin, Johnson said, recruited him but in the end didn’t offer a scholarship.
He said he thinks an academic record he said is better now than when he left high school had something to do with him not getting scholarship offers from Football Bowl Subdivision schools. He signed as a wide receiver with Western Carolina, but did not play, so that year was considered a red-shirt season.
Johnson returned to the end zone two of his nine interceptions senior year and two of his eight last year. He also is in the mix for returning punts, a task he performed in high school.
“I just like being able to move with the ball in my hands,” he said.
It’s not all he likes. As strong safety, he will need to bring down running backs. He said he loves to hit, sometimes a concern for former receivers.
In this age of spread offenses scoring so easily against inexperienced defenses such as the one KU will field, it helps to steal possessions. Johnson’s knack for picks could give Kansas a better shot at winning shootouts.