While Texas would like to forget almost everything about its 12-0 loss to Oklahoma in the Red River Shootout last month, one play was worth savoring. On a third-and-four from the Sooners' 19-yard line in the second quarter, Longhorns senior linebacker Derrick Johnson sprinted across the field toward rolling-out quarterback Jason White and hooked an arm around White's waist, popping loose the football, which Texas recovered.
Such plays are common for the 6'4", 235-pound Johnson, who has established himself as one of the nation's best defensive players. Johnson has forced a school-record seven fumbles this season and leads the Longhorns with 83 tackles, including four in last Saturday's 31-7 thrashing of Colorado. After a 35--13 loss to Texas on Sept. 25 in which Johnson had eight tackles and forced a fumble, Rice coach Ken Hatfield called him a "dominant force" and "as good as anyone who plays the game."
Johnson wasn't always so fierce. Despite athletic genes--his older brother, Dwight, and a cousin, Bert Emanuel, played a combined nine years in the NFL as a defensive end and receiver, respectively--Johnson was "a mama's boy," according his mother, Beverly. But when Derrick came home one day at age nine to say that he had been bullied during a basketball game in his Waco, Texas, neighborhood, Dwight took him back to the court. "He stuck up for himself, all right," says Dwight, now 27. "The other kid didn't get a lick in."
Johnson soon brought that aggressiveness to the football field. As a senior at Waco High he had 170 tackles, most memorably a WWF-esque takedown of now Texas A&M quarterback Reggie McNeal during the Lions' 21-14 win over Lufkin in the state 5A playoffs. In his first three seasons at Texas, Johnson distinguished himself as the Longhorns' top defensive playmaker. Last season he had 125 tackles, including 20 for loss, and was named All-America.
Still, in watching Johnson on tape last winter, Texas' new co--defensive coordinator Greg Robinson saw room for improvement. He moved Johnson from middle linebacker to the weakside spot to better take advantage of his speed, and he worked to reduce Johnson's habit of overrunning the ball. Johnson also started doing training runs and cut out Taco Bell. "I'd have been selling myself short if I didn't do all that," says Johnson. "Ahead of me are goals I've been waiting a long time to reach."
Although Johnson didn't attain his No. 1 goal--beating Oklahoma--he can still help send Texas to a BCS bowl; the Longhorns have turned in three impressive wins since losing to the Sooners and are ranked No. 6. Johnson is sure to reach his other goal, making the NFL. Most scouts predict that he'll be one of the top 10 picks in next April's draft, thus becoming the first Texas linebacker since Tommy Nobis in 1966 to go in the first round. No one will be happier to see him in the NFL than the Longhorns' opponents. --Kelley King
GARRETT ELLWOOD/WIREIMAGE.COM (JOHNSON)
Johnson, who has forced seven fumbles, is the nation's best linebacker.