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Spurned by Pac-12, CB Johnson aims for NFL

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By Jonah Rosenblum

When asked who stood out to him in this class of cornerbacks, which includes Dre Kirkpatrick, Janoris Jenkins and Morris Claiborne, Trumaine Johnson didn't skip a beat.

"I believe myself," Johnson said. "Myself, Trumaine Johnson."

Coming out of the Big Sky Conference, Johnson is forced to contend with plenty of questions regarding the level of competition at which he has played these past few years.

The 6-1 7/8, 204-pound Johnson has a simple answer for such concerns.

"If anything, turn the tape on against Tennessee," Johnson said. "They're an SEC team, the only D-I team we played my senior year. Turn that tape on."

The problem with that box score, if not that video, is that the Volunteers completed 18-of-25 passes for 311 yards in a 42-16 rout. Johnson and his fellow members of the secondary were unable to deter Tennessee starting QB Tyler Bray, who completed 17-of-24 passes for 293 yards and three touchdowns.

Outside of their trip to Knoxville, the Grizzlies didn't play a top-level Division I school during Johnson's time at Montana. In his senior season, their only other losses came to Sam Houston State and Sacramento State, while some of their best defensive performances came against Idaho State, Northern Iowa and Montana State.

Of course, it didn't always seem like Johnson would have to deal with the stigma of being a small-school cornerback. Coming out of California, Johnson appeared on his way to a Pac-12 school, then known as the Pac-10.

But Johnson said that USC never called him back after he attended the Trojans' camp. Neither did California, even though Johnson said that he was told that the Golden Bears were going to offer him. Arizona State was going to host him for a visit, according to Johnson, but he never received the expected call. After waiting long enough by the phone, Johnson packed his bags for Missoula.

Why he never received that call from a Pac-12 school, Johnson may never know:

"I couldn't tell you, sir," said Johnson, who is considered by PFW draft analyst Nolan Nawrocki to be one of the top cornerbacks in the 2012 draft and a likely top-50 pick.

It also wasn't always clear what position Johnson would play. A remarkably talented quarterback in high school, Johnson passed for 1,800 yards, rushed for 500 yards, reached the endzone 22 times and tossed just five interceptions during his senior season. He also proved his worth as a wide receiver with 750 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns his junior year. But it didn't take long for the Grizzlies to move him to cornerback.

"I'll tell you a little story," Johnson said. "I got to Montana (in 2008). Second day, I didn't even get to practice, (former Montana head coach Bobby) Hauck asked if I could play corner. We were playing (New York Giants 2009 third-round pick) Ramses Barden (a wide receiver from Cal Poly) first game. I didn't even know who he was. At the time, I took it in. I told my parents, they were a little upset, but I told them, it's for the team."

His first half at cornerback didn't go so well, as Barden, who compiled 2,724 receiving yards and 36 receiving touchdowns during his last two seasons at Cal Poly, caught two touchdown passes. But he never found the endzone again and finished with 131 receiving yards.

"Oh, first half, he torched me," Johnson said. "Second half, I clamped down and we won the game (30-28)."

The difficulty of attending a small school doesn't only relate to the marginal competition Johnson faced on Saturdays, it also relates to the lower level of competition Johnson faced every day in practice. While South Carolina's Stephon Gilmore was matching up with Alshon Jeffery and LSU's Morris Claiborne was going up against Rueben Randle, Johnson was facing Jabin Sambrano.

That was an issue that Grizzlies head coach Robin Pflugrad acknowledged and which Nawrocki listed as a negative for Johnson in PFW's scouting report of him — "Has faced marginal competition and too often will play down to its level and coasts on his athletic talent."

"I don't think 'Tru' was challenged enough this spring as a defensive back," Pflugrad said. "It gets to the point that sometimes things are just too easy for him, and that's not good. We have to do a better job coaching him and make it tougher on him."

Johnson, 22, is aware of his reputation as a big fish in a small pond, and said that he knows that he needs to prepare for bigger ponds in the future.

"Come to a smaller school, they can say you get lazy, you can get bored, because they're not going your way," Johnson said, "but I believe you can always improve on your technique, and going to the next level, you're going to need that."

Johnson — who Nawrocki says is blessed with "very good leaping ability, body control and ball skills … good coverage instincts and closing burst" among other attributes — certainly had plenty of game experience with which to work on his technique. He ended his career in Missoula with 46 starts in 47 games played, a fact that he takes immense pride in.

"I think about it every day," Johnson said. "I take so much pride in it. I love the sport. I love what I do and I love being a corner."

He took advantage of his opportunities on the field, leading the Grizzlies with 12 pass breakups and adding two interceptions in 2011. He also compiled 54 tackles and six tackles for loss. For his career, he ended up with 35 pass breakups and 15 interceptions.

But in between all of his starts, tackles and passes defensed, there were issues. During his first two seasons in Missoula, Johnson suffered from the injury bug, missing five games in 2008 because of a slight PCL tear, before fracturing his right forearm in 2009. He missed four games and had to play with a cast for the rest of the season.

There were issues off of the field too, as Johnson and teammate Gerald Kemp were charged in October with obstructing a peace officer, disorderly conduct and resisting arrest following a late-night party at Johnson's apartment that allegedly featured several persons under the age of 21. Both men were tased in the incident. Johnson allegedly resisted police attempts to get him on the ground and the police told The Missoulian that alcohol was a factor in both Kemp's and Johnson's behavior.

Those charges were ultimately reduced to a simple disorderly conduct charge, which carries no jail time with it, so long as Johnson doesn't commit any other offenses for six months. The cornerback has been relatively up front about his past indiscretions and told multiple media outlets at the 2012 NFL Scouting Combine that he wanted to prove his character.

He also wanted to prove his skill, and while he didn't exactly light up the scoreboard in Indianapolis, running a 40-time of 4.56 seconds, he did finish eighth among cornerbacks in the broad jump and fifth among cornerbacks with 19 repetitions in the bench press.

As a result of his impressive height, rumors are rife that Johnson could be destined to play safety in the NFL, a possibility that he said he is open to. Indeed, he said that he is willing to play pretty much any role.

"When I say anything on the field, I mean, water boy, I mean receiver, cornerback, safety, lineman," said Johnson, who also has kickoff-return experience. "Whatever you need me to do, I'm going to do it."

But when it comes down to it, Johnson would like to be a cornerback in the NFL. After all, he is the self-described shutdown cornerback of his class, and that confidence alone could carry him a long way.

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