CHARLOTTESVILLE — A season ago, Cameron Johnson was an outside linebacker in Al Groh’s 3-4 defense. He starts at end in the 4-3 scheme that Groh’s successor, Mike London, installed this year, and the 6-4, 265-pound junior looks like a natural.
Through three games, Johnson leads the Wahoos in tackles (17), tackles for loss (5.5) and sacks (3.5). He also has broken up a pass and recovered a fumble, all while learning a new position.
“To put your hand down on the ground from standing up in a two-point stance, there’s a lot of difference,” Jeff Hanson, UVa’s defensive line coach, said Tuesday night. “And I think he’s come really a long ways since the spring.
“He’s becoming a very dominant pass rusher. He’s very good against the run. Cam is really becoming a very, very good football player, and I’m very, very happy with him. He’s going to be one of the better defensive ends in the league before he leaves here.”
In UVa’s 48-7 win over VMI last weekend, Johnson had a career-high 2.5 sacks. No. 56 will face more talented offensive linemen in the weeks to come, but a “sack’s a sack,” Hanson said.
“Against Southern Cal, I thought he rushed the passer real well. The thing about rushing the passer is, it’s not only sacks, it’s also pressure, causing incompletions. It’s also tipped passes, getting your hand up in the throwing lane, getting the quarterback to move around in the pocket a little bit. There’s a lot of things that come into pass rush without just sacks … He’s done very well, and he’s getting better.”
Virginia’s ACC opener is Saturday at Scott Stadium. UVa (2-1) hosts Florida State (1-0, 3-1) and its star quarterback, Christian Ponder, at noon.
“I think the one thing that we need to really do this week is we need to be a little bit more rush-lane conscious,” Hanson said. “We got out of our rush lanes a couple times [against VMI] and missed sacks and didn’t wrap up.
“We’ve probably had our hands on the quarterback four or five other times, but we’ve just fallen off the sack. And when you get a chance to sack somebody, you’ve got to wrap them up. And that’s something that we’ve got to do this weekend, and we’ve also got to do a great job with our rush lanes, and not be mechanical about it. Give [UVa defenders] an opportunity to do their own thing as far as pass rush, but also be very conscious of Ponder, who does run the football very well.”
For the season, Virginia has recorded 7 sacks, including 6 by linemen.
“I’m happy with the way that we’ve come on,” Hanson said. “We’ve still got a long ways to go, believe me, but it’s different in a 3-4 rushing the passer than it is our 4-3. The kids are still learning a little bit, as far as some of the things that we’re trying to do, but they’re getting better every day and every week, and I’m very happy with what’s going on right now.”
Defensive linemen to watch include end Billy Schautz, who made his 2010 debut against VMI. Schautz is a 6-4, 250-pound redshirt sophomore who, like Johnson, played outside linebacker in the 3-4.
“Billy gives us a great edge presence in that he’s got quickness off the ball,” Hanson said. “He’s got linebacker quickness, which is what we’re looking for as far as our defensive ends. We’re looking for guys that are twitched up, that are athletic, that can run, that have quickness and speed. And Billy gives us all that stuff as a defensive end.”