Making noise on defense Terps: Four-year starter A. J. Johnson now lets his play do the talking at cornerback.

August 21, 1996|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK -- A. J. Johnson aims to talk less and enjoy it more.

As Maryland's stock rose in the college football world the last two years, Johnson found himself engaging in fewer X-rated conversations with wide receivers. The banter was about all the cornerback had in his arsenal as a freshman in 1993, when he became a starter by default on one of the worst defenses in NCAA history.

"I had to talk as a freshman, just to keep my mind off the things we couldn't do," said Johnson, who will make his 32nd career start when Maryland opens against Northern Illinois on Aug. 31.

"You have to do that, just to show the opponent you're not going to bow down. You're not going to be scared of him. When you're winning, there's no need to talk, and I've gradually toned it down the last couple of years. I don't have to scare anybody anymore. I don't have to be as cocky. Now, it's got to be a special occasion."

A few of the prominent ones last year came during the high and low points of a 6-5 season.

When the Terps upset North Carolina, Johnson jawed constantly at the Tar Heels' highly touted receivers. There was plenty to discuss. Johnson forced a fumble and had the first two-interception game of his career. Sports Illustrated named him its Defensive Player of the Week.

Seven weeks later, Maryland's collapse from a 4-0 start bottomed out in a lifeless 31-0 loss at Louisville. Some of the Terps quit in the fourth quarter, but Johnson went down fighting. He was ejected, and under NCAA rules sat out the first half of the next game. It was the first start he had missed since the 1993 opener.

Johnson and linebacker Ratcliff Thomas are the only four-year starters on a defense that has led Maryland's improvement over the last two seasons. He has nine career interceptions, and another year like 1995, when he had six and was a second-team all-Atlantic Coast Conference selection, would leave him No. 2 on the Terps' all-time list.

Johnson is primed for a big senior season, but it did not begin well. Near the end of spring practice, he was suspended by coach Mark Duffner, who declined to discuss specifics. The suspension ended with the close of the spring semester.

"It was a violation of team policy, and that's all I'm going to say," Duffner said. "He wasn't in any trouble with the law, or anything like that. It was a rough time for A. J. He had some personal things to work out."

Johnson's maternal grandmother died in February. His Johnson brother Johnnie, who followed A. J. to Maryland but couldn't find playing time in the secondary, withdrew from Maryland and returned to their home in Pahokee, Fla. He's working a recreation job in Daytona Beach, and hopes to complete his college degree at Bethune-Cookman.

Johnson, a family studies major, said he'll take 93 credits into his fourth year at Maryland, but he struggled as a freshman academically.

He too considered dropping out and going back to Florida, where he fathered two children, Andreal Jr., 6, and Shaquieat, 4. Johnson decided, however, that the best way to provide for them was to remain a Terp, get a degree and try to make it to the NFL.

"I've got plenty of incentive to make it to the NFL," Johnson said. "I want to take care of them, take care of my mother."

Draft expert Mel Kiper says both of Maryland's cornerbacks have a professional future.

Kiper rates Chad Scott as the fourth-best cornerback prospect among this year's seniors, and Johnson No. 17. As NFL receivers have gotten bigger, so have cornerbacks, and size could be a drawback. The Terps' media guide lists Johnson at 5 feet 10, 170 pounds, but he's probably closer to 5-9.

Johnson has come up big for Maryland, both on Saturdays and in practice, where his vision has gone beyond college. He has always tried to match himself against the Terps' top receiver, and over the last three years, that meant confrontations against Jermaine Lewis, who's now with the Ravens.

"When Jermaine was here, there wasn't a rep in one-on-one drills when A. J. didn't go against him," defensive coordinator and secondary coach Kevin Coyle said. "That was not my design. It was just like a game, in that he approached every play like a personal challenge. A. J. thought that by doing that, it would make him a better player, and it did."

Pub Date: 8/21/96

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