When the Denver Broncos, fresh off of last week's whipping at the hands of the New England Patriots, line up for the first defensive play of this weekend's game against Oakland, 27 percent of their starting lineup will be former Jayhawks.
Although Chris Harris and Aqib Talib — both on the Pro Bowl ballot — already are fixtures in the Broncos' starting lineup, the former KU standouts will make room to share the spotlight with linebacker Steven Johnson, a third-year pro who has played primarily special teams since joining the Broncos as an undrafted free agent.
The Denver Post is reporting that Johnson will start in Nate Irving's spot at middle linebacker, as Irving left last week's loss with an injury and is expected to miss some time. Johnson has been in the Broncos' plans at LB for the past couple of years but mostly in a role as a luxury to have a guy like him for depth purposes. When asked to play, Johnson has delivered, but this weekend figures to be his first true crack at proving himself as a regular in the NFL.
While making the leap from seldom-used reserve to starter on a team vying for a second consecutive trip to the Super Bowl could be overwhelming, at least one Bronco believes Johnson is ready and has been ready for the moment for a while.
"Stevey Johnson is going to be able to get the job done," Harris told The Denver Post. "He's been in our defense going on three years now. He has experience in there. He's been waiting for his shot. Now he has his shot. We've been needing him on special teams since he's been hurt, but now he has a shot to play and he has a chance to show what he can do."
For more on Johnson's likely move into the starting lineup, check out Post writer Mike Klis' report from Monday.
It's Media Day at Super Bowl XLVIII, so let's join the fun with a quick look at one of the two former Kansas University players representing the Jayhawks at this year's big game.
There are a million reasons to feel good about former Kansas University football standout Steven Johnson preparing to play in the Super Bowl in six days.
From all of the fight and resolve he showed just to be able to play college ball to the injuries he overcame, the couches he slept on before earning a scholarship and the losses that piled up faster than he could blink, even with Johnson giving everything he had to the program, each week, each game, each play.
"From everything I have been through from high school to prep school to Kansas and now with the Broncos, I have been truly blessed," Johnson said after Denver knocked off New England in the AFC championship game on Jan. 19. "I have so much more to accomplish and hopefully this is just the beginning of a great career in the NFL. I am so thankful to be a part of an amazing organization with the Broncos and I am proud to represent Kansas in the Super Bowl."
Despite a deck stacked against him most of his life, Johnson persevered. He made it into the NFL as an undrafted free agent after fighting his way through multiple cuts and dozens of nay-sayers to land on the Broncos' 53-man roster before the 2012 season. And during his first two seasons in the NFL, he has proven that he is not merely content to wear a uniform.
All of that and more provides plenty of reason to be pumped for Johnson and his chance to play in the Super Bowl in just his second season as a pro. From an 0-for-4 run at bowl games at Kansas to an appearance in the Super Bowl in two years. Not bad.
During his final two seasons at KU, Johnson became a sort of go-to guy for interviews, which was both a testament to his ability to offer insightful and entertaining answers to our questions and his self-confidence. Even when the Jayhawks were reeling, Johnson always pointed to what they still could accomplish, not what they missed out on. It's probably that mindset — and all of the practice he got — that provided him with the kind of toughness needed to make it at the highest level.
But we're not just talking about a guy who is on the sideline here and will piggy-back his way to a ring if his teammates perform well. Johnson plays. Although he's listed as a reserve linebacker on the roster, he's a starter on all of Denver's special teams units and has made a very noticeable impact on the punt return and kickoff units.
While that's where he hangs his hat for the moment, Johnson has filled in on defense during a couple of critical moments this season, most notably on a goal-line stand situation against Kansas City in Denver, where, on third-and-goal from the 1, Johnson filled the gap, blasted Jamaal Charles and forced the Chiefs to settle for a field goal. It was by far his biggest defensive play of his young career.
For all of his on-the-field accomplishments and those of his team, which enters Super Bowl XLVIII as the favorite, Johnson remains the same down-to-earth guy he was at Kansas.
Last spring, when Johnson was back in town to support his former KU teammates at their pro day, I caught up with him and we talked about his rookie season with the Broncos. He told me stories about notable teammates, meeting one of his idols, San Francisco linebacker Patrick Willis, and all of the nerves that went into every cut-down day.
But the best story I remember had to do with a night out to dinner with his teammates.
One night, Johnson and a few Broncos went to eat at a Denver steakhouse where Broncos legend and current executive vice president of football operations John Elway happened to be eating with friends. Elway recognized his players, invited the crew to join his party and offered to pick up the tab.
By that point, Johnson had met Elway a couple of times and knew his spot on the squad was secure. But not wanting to rock the boat or take for granted his good fortune, Johnson ordered a salad. The gesture had no bearing on his spot on the team nor did it play a role in him getting to where he got. Except, of course, for the fact that operating that way his entire life — with humility, decency, class and appreciation — helped define who Steven Johnson was, which paved the way for him to achieve all of his dreams.
Even with a little fame, a nice chunk of money, a golden opportunity and a spot in the Super Bowl that others would kill for, Johnson has not changed.
That, above all the other worthy reasons, is the one that makes it so easy to feel so good for Steven Johnson.
"Winning this game and being able to go to the Super Bowl is a dream come true," Johnson said. "I have been playing this game since I was five years old and it has always been my dream."
Johnson and former Jayhawk Chris Harris, arguably Denver's most important defensive player this season who tore his ACL during the playoffs and will miss the big game, are the first Jayhawks to advance to the Super Bowl since Justin Hartwig picked up a Super Bowl ring in 2009 as a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Johnson and Harris become the 26th and 27th Jayhawks all-time to reach the Super Bowl, with 20 KU players having won Super Bowl rings in the past.
Here are a couple of Johnson's signature moments from the 2013 season:
BLOCKED PUNT VS. PHILY
TACKLE WITH NO HELMET VS. ST. LOUIS PRESEASON
When the San Diego Chargers visit the Denver Broncos at 3:40 p.m. Sunday, the game will pit three former Kansas University football players vying for a spot in the AFC championship game.
The meeting between San Diego's Darrell Stuckey (25 above) and Denver's Chris Harris (16 above) and Steven Johnson represents arguably the biggest NFL game in quite some time that features former Jayhawks on both sides.
And the reunion is made even cooler by the fact that the trio of KU alums played on the same Jayhawk teams for two seasons and even lived together for a short time during their college careers.
Although Sunday's meeting brings the three former teammates together at the same key point in time, their paths to get there were significantly different.
Stuckey was the first of the three to reach the NFL, drafted by San Diego in the fourth round of the 2010 NFL Draft.
During his first four seasons in the league, the Kansas City, Kan., native has made a name for himself as a special teams standout. His 12 special teams tackles in 2012 were tops on the team and his total of nearly 40 special teams tackles during the past three seasons rank in the Top 10 in the NFL despite Stuckey having played in fewer games than most players on the list above him.
Of late, Stuckey has begun to make a greater impact on defense, as well, finishing last week's playoff victory over Cincinnati with a career-high five tackles and two passes defended. His 26 tackles this season came through both defense and special teams, where he has garnered mention for a spot in the pro bowl during the past couple of seasons.
"Stuck might be the best I've seen in my 11 years," San Diego punter Mike Scifres said in a recent interview with the San Diego Union-Tribune. “Some of the things he can do, the way he can change games, it's almost second to none right now."
Added Chargers place kicker Nick Novak: "He's virtually unstoppable because his technique is that good. He's such a student of the game. He just has, it seems, a counter move for every move they're bringing at him. Of course, he's human, but sometimes you think he's made for special teams."
Harris followed Stuckey into the league in 2011 but went the route of joining the Broncos as an undrafted free agent following the NFL lockout. Like Stuckey, the Bixby, Okla., native first made his mark on special teams, but when the Broncos' secondary endured key injuries, Harris was tossed into the lineup on defense and quickly became one of the team's top utility men, thanks largely to the many roles he played while at Kansas.
He has been referred to by some as the NFL's best coverage guy on slot receivers and his intelligence, physicality and tackling ability have made him one of the most valuable defensive players on the AFC's top seeded team that finished 13-3 during back-to-back seasons.
Harris' contributions to the Mile High City have reached far beyond the field. He's one of the team's most active members in the community and, recently, was given the Darrent Williams Good Guy award by the Denver media.
"He’s a stand-up guy even when times aren’t going real well," Denver coach John Fox said of Harris. "He’s, I think, mature beyond his years. I think he’s done a tremendous job just where he came from and what he’s accomplished in a short time here with the Broncos. It doesn’t surprise me.”
Johnson, who, like Stuckey, was invited to the NFL combine, went undrafted but quickly agreed to a free-agent deal with Denver following the completion of the 2012 draft.
The former Jayhawk, who led Kansas in tackles during his junior and senior seasons, said Harris' trailblazing paved the way for him to land in Denver.
“It actually meant a lot,” Johnson told the Journal-World at the time. “He was the one who called me and told me they were trying to draft me. He called me and told me all about Denver and told me they were a team on the rise, and I wanted to go to a team that could contend and win Super Bowls and stuff like that.”
Johnson spent his early days at Kansas as a walk-on desperate for an opportunity. He spent a chunk of time living on teammates couches and had to overcome a couple of major injuries prior to college that slowed his development. Despite all the adversity, Johnson stuck it out and wound up becoming one of the top tacklers in the Big 12 before leaving college.
That relentless style and attitude seems to be serving him well in the NFL, too.
"He's the guy that if anything happens, he's so into the game he's like, 'Now, Coach? I'm ready,' " Denver defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio told the Denver Post.
Sunday is not the first NFL meeting between these three former Jayhawks. The Broncos and Chargers played twice during the regular season in 2012 and twice this season, as well. Denver won three of the four meetings, but San Diego emerged victorious during the most recent match-up, which has added significant intrigue to the showdown between the AFC's top-seeded and bottom-seeded teams this weekend.
Because of each team's Jayhawk ties, that showdown figures to be even more interesting for Kansas football fans.
As an appetizer, former KU All-American Aqib Talib and the New England Patriots will face the Indianapolis Colts on Saturday night in the weekend's other AFC playoff game. If Talib and the Patriots prevail, they'll play the winner of the San Diego-Denver game on Jan. 19 for the right to go to the Super Bowl, and the book of biggest pro football games between former Jayhawks will include another chapter.