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October 1, 2012The road has not always been so clear for Arizona State senior Keelan Johnson, yet dedication and commitment this off-season has moved some self-created obstacles out of his path.
Johnson, a 6-foot-0 202-pounder, has already started in more games this season than his last for the Sun Devils.
In 2011, Johnson started just three games as then-defensive coordinator Craig Bray never settled on regular first-stringers out of his dissatisfaction with the position. Still, Johnson finished tied for eighth on the team with 48 tackles to go along with two interceptions, and three passes defended.
This season Johnson has started in all five games and has truly dialed into his responsibilities.
"It feels really good especially when these coaches are investing all their trust in me and the other safeties and defensive backs," Johnson said. "It feels really good to be a player that these coaches depend on to make plays and help everyone get lined up."
Though he has made significant strides, Johnson said he is focused on where he can improve even further.
"I'm working on just being more consistent and applying myself and taking control of the game," Johnson said. "I know this defense both inside and out and as far as the academic level I was a scholar baller this last semester and I think that really applied to everything I've done on this field so far."
During the off-season Johnson spent extra time in the film room and was persistent in pursuit of his goal of making an impact for the Sun Devils this season.
"I knew I was capable of it, I just didn't apply my talent as well as I should have," Johnson said.
Johnson has displayed impressive range due to his speed, which allows him to cover a lot of ground in the secondary, and finally showing off the skills his teammates knew were there.
"It's been tremendous," junior safety Alden Darby said. "I've always seen it since day one, since I got in here, I've seen Keelan, I knew Keelan was the guy. I knew Keelan had potential. I knew he could be All-Pac-12 and everything. This year I've really seen that potential really turns into actual work on the field."
Johnson has also impressed his coaches with his commitment and constant improvements. This, along with other leadership skills landed him a surprising captain spot for the Sun Devils, along with senior running back Cameron Marshall, senior offensive lineman Andrew Sampson, and senior linebacker Brandon Magee.
"There's a lot of good football in him," safeties coach Chris Ball said. "I think he's going to just continue to get better each week. I'm really proud of the way that he works. His mental game is very strong. He can handle a lot more than I thought he would be able to coming into it and he's just got to continue to stay focused and keep getting better every day."
The new coaches and new defensive schemes have all seemed to play in Johnson's favor, with the attack philosophy making things easier on players in the secondary.
"It's like watching art out there," junior cornerback Osahon Irabor said. "He's really talented. This year he's finally locked in, knows what he's doing, reading his keys, being a leader for the secondary. We kind of all look to him for guidance because he's really setting an example every day in practice. I'm very excited for him because he's one of my good friends and he's playing really well."
Johnson went into the 2012 season armed with talent and yet, was somewhat inexperienced given his seniority, especially considering the new coverage schemes, but you would never known. Through five games he has 33 tackles, third most on the squad, as well as four passes defended and one interception.
With his play as a key contributing reason, the Sun Devils currently rank seventh in the nation in pass efficiency defense and tenth in total defense.
Now that he's on a better path and playing well, Johnson doesn't see his football career ending at ASU.
"Looking further down the field playing at the next level has always been one of my dreams and aspirations," Johnson said. "So coming out here and taking practice like it's a game makes it easy once gametime comes."
Johnson's coaches have also made notice of his NFL potential.
"They compare me to former players they have had and telling me I have a good work ethic," Johnson said. "I can get these guys motivated and be somebody out here on the field that these guys look up too and when times are rough out here during practice."