Cam Johnson: UVa's Prolific ?Rusher?
By Cayce Troxel, Virginia Athletics Media Relations
Wednesday is a long day for Cam Johnson.
It starts at 5:45 a.m., when the defensive end’s alarm goes off. Johnson then hustles to get to the McCue Center by 6:25 a.m., where he meets his Cavalier teammates for their morning practice. After lifting, watching film and drilling on the field, Johnson catches a ride to class at 11 a.m. He has class until noon, a quick break for lunch, and then it’s back to the classroom again for two consecutive three-hour seminars. All of that rushing around scarcely leaves Johnson with enough time to eat dinner and do homework before hitting the hay early in preparation for yet another early morning.
“I am pretty busy,” Johnson said.
Busy is an understatement. A senior, Johnson hopes to graduate a semester earlier than planned, in December. Finishing his degree ahead of schedule would likely open up more opportunities for Johnson should he pursue a post-college playing career. At the same time, it means Johnson will never experience the luxury of the supposedly easier senior schedule.
While most players are taking 12 credit hours-or even less, in the case of some fifth year Cavaliers-the sociology major is saddled with 17, a rigorous course load for even a regular student, much less a Division I athlete in season.
“It speaks a lot about Cam’s drive and determination,” said fellow Cavalier defensive lineman Nick Jenkins. “Not only is he studying football a lot during the week, but he is also determined to get his degree and finish up early which is something not many people do at a school like UVa. That’s something special.”
Although Johnson’s teammates are impressed by his demanding schedule, the Cavalier himself does not see anything exceptional about his daily balancing act. For the guy who barely has time to shower on Wednesdays – “If I do, it better be a quick one” – and who has to prepare for Thursday’s classes Tuesday night, it is all taken in stride.
“I just try to keep myself motivated,” Johnson said. “It’s rough sometimes, but I try to get it done.”
Johnson was referring to his hectic timetable, yet the same motto holds true for the defensive end’s performance on the field. Recording a team-high 6.5 sacks last season, Johnson ranked in the ACC’s top-five in both sacks and tackles for loss. Now five games into his senior season, the four-year starter again leads the Cavaliers in sacks and is on track to finish his career among the all-time leaders at Virginia in the revered defensive category.
While it is easy to look only at statistics, Johnson instead views sacks in terms of their importance beyond just a number on a sheet of paper.
“It’s a great play for our team, and we try to get as many as we can,” Johnson said. “I always think, ‘Just get ‘em down, just get ‘em down.’ And if you can, get the ball from them.”
Safe to say, Johnson has always had a knack for honing in on the football. And not just in terms of sacks.
A two-sport star in both football and basketball at Gonzaga High School in Washington, D.C., Johnson played both wide receiver and safety for the Eagles. Ranked No. 38 nationally at safety coming out of high school, Johnson was nevertheless recruited by Virginia to play linebacker in former head coach Al Groh’s 3-4 alignment. Johnson played six games at LB his freshman year before an ankle injury ended his season prematurely; and in 2009, he started ten of 12 games at the position.
With the change in coaches in 2010 came a change in defense, however. And for Johnson, that meant moving from linebacker to defensive end his junior year, completing his transition from the backfield to the front line and thus concluding his quest to get closer to the ball.
“In some ways, I think playing wide receiver in high school could have helped with quickness and agility,” Johnson said. “Those play a great factor in any position. Then going from outside linebacker to defensive end-it was a lot to learn and take in that first season, but the positions are really pretty similar. The transition wasn’t that bad.”
“He’s a freak athlete,” Jenkins said. “A lot of people don’t know Cam played safety in high school, and now he’s considered one of the ‘bigs’ on the team. He is such a dynamic player, and it shows when you look at his background and see that he’s played all over the field.”
While Johnson has made an impact at multiple positions throughout his career, his defining moment as a Cavalier came playing at defensive end earlier this season against Indiana. With the Hoosiers in possession of the ball-and the momentum-after tying the score with less than two minutes to play, the pressure was on the Cavalier defense to come up with a much-needed stop, thus providing the offense with one last chance to score before going into overtime on the road.
“We needed to hold them to nothing-not even a field goal,” Johnson said. “We talked about finding a way to get the ball back, and Coach Reid, our defensive coordinator, drew up a great pressure for us. LaRoy Reynolds came in on the inside of me, and the line slid away from me.”
And then Johnson did what he does best-and what he does every Wednesday of his final semester at UVa: Rush.
“The key is to get to the quarterback as fast as you can,” the Cavalier veteran said. “That’s exactly what I was trying to do at the moment. Once I finally got there, I felt like the ball was attainable and just did whatever I could to get it.”
Cavalier fans will always remember what happened next. Stripping the ball from the Hoosier quarterback’s hands, Johnson gave Virginia possession in the Indiana red zone and set up Robert Randolph’s game-winning field goal.
Johnson was responsible for sealing the Cavaliers’ fate in that game, yet the defensive end’s own future is still yet to be determined.
“I don’t know what I’ll be doing yet,” Johnson said of his post-graduation plans. “We’ll see how everything goes, and we’ll play it from there.”
Whether that means pursuing a career in the NFL or something else, one thing is certain. In light of his noteworthy achievements on the football field-and his crazy Wednesday schedule-Johnson will go down as one of the most prolific “rushers” in Virginia history.