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Sept. 16, 2011
By Bill Hass
GREENSBORO, N.C. (theACC.com) - A player who believes he's at the right school in the right position made a play in the right place at the right time for Virginia.
The career of Cam Johnson, a senior defensive end for the Cavaliers, could have gone an entirely different direction. At Gonzaga High School in Washington, D.C., he was a safety and wide receiver and had a tempting offer from Pittsburgh to play offense for the Panthers. After all, standouts receivers Larry Fitzgerald and Antonio Bryant played there.
"Virginia was the right place for me," Johnson said. "I'm where I'm supposed to be."
The Cavaliers played a 3-4 defense under coach Al Groh when Johnson came to Virginia and he became an outside linebacker. He played in a few games as a true freshman, then started 10 games as a sophomore.
When Mike London took over as Virginia's coach last season, he changed to a 4-3 defense and Johnson was moved to defensive end, where he started all 12 games and recorded six-and-a-half sacks. There were some new things for Johnson to learn, but mostly it was a matter of becoming familiar with the scheme.
"I would say I'm a lot more comfortable," said Johnson, who carries 270 pounds on his 6-foot-4 frame. "Last year was my first year playing defensive end. I wouldn't say that there was a lot of stuff that I had to learn. It was just taking time to get comfortable in the system."
London said it was a philosophical reason to switch to the 4-3 because he can recruit more defensive ends and tackles rather than a stable full of linebackers. He said Johnson should benefit from having experience at both positions.
"He's been exposed to a couple different schemes," London said. "Standing up, hand on the ground, dropping into coverage, all those type of things. I think it's played into his strength thus far."
Last season Virginia split its first eight games under London but lost its last four. The Cavs lost all five road games.
After an opening win at home over William & Mary this season, they hit the road to Indiana last week and built a 23-3 advantage. The Hoosiers rallied and took a 31-23 lead but Virginia regrouped with a TD and two-point conversion to tie the game.
On its final possession, Indiana decided to try to move the ball into field goal range. With the ball on the Indiana 23, Virginia defensive coordinator Jim Reid called for a blitz and the Hoosier blockers couldn't pick up everyone.
Johnson stormed in from the blind side of Indiana quarterback Edward Wright-Baker and stripped him of the ball, falling down with it at the 9-yard line. That set up a field goal by Robert Randolph as time expired to give Virginia the win.
"Coach Reid drew up a great pressure for us," Johnson said. "I came free on the edge and I just tried to make a play from there. Coming into the play I knew we needed the ball back and we couldn't let them get into field goal range, so my plan was to get a stop and get a take-away.
"The first thing is to secure the tackle and once I saw that the ball was obtainable I just tried to get it. I actually took it from him."
London said it was a case of the defensive players executing what they do in practice all the time. And, of course, a strong presence of mind by Johnson to have the awareness of not only stopping the play, but getting the ball back.
Someone who took notice of the play on film was North Carolina coach Everett Withers, whose team faces the Cavaliers this week in Chapel Hill.
"Obviously, that play stood out," Withers said. "He made plays, I thought, throughout the game. As a coach ... you don't get locked into one play a lot of time, you get locked into the consistency of a guy. They've had a lot of consistency in their defensive front."
For Johnson, continuing that consistency is important as the Cavaliers develop the program under London.
"We had to fight through adversity (against Indiana) and we came out with a win," Johnson said. "That's what you want to do every time.
"It feels great to be 2-0. We're trying to turn things around here and we're looking forward to more success in the future."
MARQUEE MATCHUPS: This weekend is chock-full of opportunities for the ACC, with conference schools playing host to four games against nationally ranked opponents on the same day for the first time in league history. Here's a glance at each.
No. 21 Auburn at Clemson: Auburn carries the nation's longest winning streak (17 games) into this one. On the road last year, Clemson went into overtime before bowing to the eventual national champions. At the least, said Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, that should confirm to his players that they can play with anybody. Not that it makes preparing for Auburn any easier.
"Well, certainly I'm kind of glad Cam Newton is with the Carolina Panthers," Swinney said. "I'm not going to lie to you about that. They have got some playmakers (and) they are going to run their offense through those guys and you'd better know where they are. We have to do a great job of stopping the run and making them have to go the distance and not giving them big plays."
No. 18 West Virginia at Maryland: Terps coach Randy Edsall said the Mountaineers run an up-tempo offense that is similar to what he wants his team to do.
"It's a lot of three wide receivers, four wide receivers in there and they are trying to get the ball in playmakers' hands in space," he said.
"They spread you out and you've got to be able to do things that hopefully can slow them down. But they do a good job ... spreading you out and attacking your formation into the boundaries, so there's a lot that we have to prepare for."
No. 17 Ohio State at Miami: Amid talk that big intersectional games might be in danger of fading into the past, Hurricanes coach Al Golden wants to see them continue.
"I think it's great for college football," he said. "Certainly we're going to continue to do that in the future. Clearly it's a great test for our conference. It's a great test for all (four) programs individually. So I know we're excited about the challenge."
No. 1 Oklahoma at No. 5 Florida State: Playing in a game like this is one thing, but Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher said there's an even bigger element.
"You want to play in these games, but you have to prepare for them more than you want to play in them," he said. "If you're prepared to play in them, then you have a chance to have success and that's what we keep talking about, living in the now.
"In other words ... what am I doing right now, what can I do right now, to get myself prepared for what's about to happen later on. I can't worry about tomorrow if I don't take care of today. We don't only preach that this week; we do that year-round in our program about what we are trying to do, and hopefully it will really help us out in moments like this."
Bill Hass is a long-time observer of ACC sports. His career at the Greensboro News & Record spanned 36 years, from 1969 until his retirement in March 2006. He is now writing "Bill Hass on the ACC" for theACC.com. His weekly columns will keep fans plugged in to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
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