Egg Harbor Township graduate Tejay Johnson hitting it off at safety for Rutgers - pressofAtlanticCity.com: Sports

Egg Harbor Township graduate Tejay Johnson hitting it off at safety for Rutgers - pressofAtlanticCity.com: Sports

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Egg Harbor Township graduate Tejay Johnson hitting it off at safety for Rutgers

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Posted: Wednesday, August 28, 2013 10:35 pm

Tejay Johnson played all over the field for the Egg Harbor Township High School football team - wide receiver, running back, safety, cornerback, even quarterback and linebacker occasionally.

So moving from cornerback to free safety this season wasn't a problem for the Rutgers University redshirt sophomore.

"I've seen it all," Johnson said in a phone interview Monday.

Johnson heads into tonight's season opener against Fresno State expecting to get significant playing time at free safety. He was listed as a backup on the Scarlet Knights' depth chart but said he was getting the same amount of reps in practice as starter Jeremy Deering, a senior who played wide receiver last season.

"He is going to be in a rotation with the other two safeties and will play a significant amount on first and second down," coach Kyle Flood said in quotes provided Wednesday by the school. "He has always played in our sub packages and he is one of our better special-teams players."

Johnson had a solid freshman season last year as a backup cornerback and special-teamer, making 11 tackles and forcing a fumble.

But playing cornerback was taking a toll on Johnson's hamstrings, which troubled him in high school and forced him to redshirt his first year at Rutgers. Practices for cornerbacks involve mostly one-on-one drills and deep routes, Johnson said, and it was especially difficult on his hamstrings when the weather got cold.

So Johnson and the Rutgers coaches sat down in the offseason and discussed other options. Over the summer, he learned both outside linebacker positions, even putting on 15 pounds to get up to 210. He planned to put on 10 more pounds if he made that move.

Eventually, though, he and the coaches decided on free safety. The 6-foot-2 Johnson got back down to 200 pounds, and he said it took him only a week to get comfortable at his new position.

"We felt with my athletic ability it'd be best for me to play safety, with the leadership ability as well, basically being like the eyes of the defense, giving out calls, communicating throughout the defense," Johnson said.

Safeties are known for hitting. Johnson grew up a Minnesota Vikings fan, but he grew up in Philadelphia and said he enjoyed watching hard-hitting Eagles safeties Brian Dawkins and Quintin Mikell.

Many cornerbacks shy away from contact. Not Johnson.

"I've always been a hitter regardless. Even when I played corner, I was a physical corner," Johnson said. "Even in high school … back in the day, since little league when I played back in Philly, I've always been physical. That's the game. I don't shy away from contact. Safety's no different than corner here (at Rutgers) because in our defense, the corner is just as much involved in the run as safety is."

Johnson played linebacker in goal-line situations at EHT, and he said he relished the hitting.

"He has a nose for the football," EHT coach Tony DeRosa said in a phone interview Tuesday night. "He's a smart football player. He picks things up well."

The biggest difference between safety and cornerback, Johnson said, is playing the ball rather than the man from the moment the ball is snapped. Whereas the former 100-meter state champion previously chased receivers around the field, now he will watch from the back of the defense and use his speed to close on the ball as the play develops.

"Corner, you want to stay closer to the guy; actually, you really want to be on the hip all the time," said the 2010 Press Male Athlete of the Year. "Safety, you want to get more depth and it's actually better for you because you get to break downhill to the ball."

Johnson also plans to be a leader for the Scarlet Knights, who have aspirations of winning the American Athletic Conference (formerly the Big East) in their last season before moving to the Big Ten. They went 9-4 last year and shared the Big East title.

Rutgers' secondary lacks experience. Redshirt junior strong safety Lorenzo Waters is the only returning starter. The starting corners are redshirt junior Gareef Glashen, who has played mostly special teams the past two years, and redshirt freshman Ian Thomas.

Johnson, meanwhile, considers himself a veteran. While he has limited experience, he is 21 years old, having spent a year at prep school before college.

"I had a meeting the other day," he said, "and I just told (the other defensive backs), 'We'll be inexperienced. We'll be young. But that doesn't mean that we can't be smart and we can't come into the game prepared and know what the other team wants to do.' "

Johnson expects to stay at free safety. Even if Deering holds on to the starting job, he is a senior, and Johnson has two years of eligibility left after this season.

"I do expect it to be my last move," Johnson said. "I think free safety is where I will end my career at Rutgers."

When asked if he has envisioned lighting up wide receivers in an NFL camp in three years, he didn't hesitate.

"Definitely," Johnson said. "I don't feel like you should be doing this if that's not what you look forward to."

Contact Jason Mazda:

609-272-7193

JMazda@pressofac.com

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