LAWRENCE — Last year was Steven Johnson's first as a starting linebacker for Kansas, and, looking back on it, he was more than a little distracted.
During games, Johnson would look around and get caught up in the atmosphere of a football Saturday, the thousands of spectators, the cheerleaders, the music booming from massive sound systems. It was hard to blame him for being in awe. After one year at prep school and two years of hardly seeing the field at KU, Johnson was finally right there in the middle of the spectacle.
"I didn't know what to expect," Johnson said. "I was just going out there to play, and it was fun. I'd never take back the experience I had last year."
But, at the same time, Johnson knows it can be so much better. As a junior, he found his way slowly but surely as the Jayhawks struggled to a 3-9 finish, and he ended up leading KU with 95 tackles (62 of them solo). As a senior this season, those numbers — the team's record and his personal tackle tally — will not be enough to satisfy the native of Media, Pa.
"I gotta get my tackles," Johnson said. "I just like flying around and knocking people's heads off. That's just my thing. Last year, my goal was to at least have 10 a game. This year, I'm upping it to 13, 14 and trying to get up in that 110, 120 range. That's the goal in the back of my head, to lead the team in tackles."
Johnson should have more competition with middle linebacker Darius Willis, a transfer from Buffalo who sat out last season, playing alongside him. Willis has garnered praise from coaches during fall camp, but nobody on the defense has received as much hype as Johnson.
"Steven Johnson has been destroying people out there," KU tight end Tim Biere said. "Our coach always says, 'You don't want to play in a phone booth with him,' because if he gets in on you, you're done."
This fall in Memorial Stadium, it would be wise to fix the binoculars on No. 52.
"Steven Johnson right now, it's phenomenal the growth that's occurred as a football player," KU defensive coordinator Vic Shealy said. "It seems as if every practice he does something where we just kind of say, 'Wow.' "
This offseason, something clicked inside of Johnson. He was one of the ringleaders of KU's conditioning program, a guy who reportedly was nearly pulling some of his teammates with him as they ran up Campanile Hill over and over again in the searing heat. Last month at Big 12 football media days, Johnson referred to himself as a captain (those haven't been officially named, but that's how confident Johnson is in his leadership role).
"He's motivating," KU cornerback Isiah Barfield said. "I don't think I've ever seen him do anything in a negative limelight. I have all the respect in the world for him."
Johnson appreciates his position more than most. He spent a year at Wyoming Seminary College Prep School in Kingston, Pa., but suffered an injury during that season that kept him from rising on recruiting lists. His only offer was one to walk on at KU. Johnson gladly came to Lawrence, but, even after he earned a scholarship prior to the 2009 season, he couldn't crack the playing rotation under former coach Mark Mangino.
Now, he's one of the main reasons to believe that the Jayhawks will be a much better defensive team in 2011.
"I've never seen anyone work as hard as he's worked," KU linebackers coach Vantz Singletary said. "When you watch him on film from last year or this past spring, he was kind of all over the place. He was very inconsistent. But now I see a guy, when you turn the film on, that's the way you play football."
Backs stand out at scrimmage — Kansas fans got their first glimpse of what the 2011 Jayhawks will look like on Saturday afternoon as the team participated in a 70-play scrimmage at Memorial Stadium.
Given the praise that KU's running backs have received from coaches during fall camp, it was no surprise that the running game highlighted the action. KU redshirt freshman Brandon Bourbon, who has battled some minor injuries the last few weeks, scored two touchdowns, while freshman running back Anthony Pierson added another.
"Brandon did some good things today," KU coach Turner Gill said. "He shows some flashes in practice, but there's always something that will come up with a little nick or an injury. It was good to get him some reps. We saw some impressive runs. He ran hard; he ran through some tackles. That was good to see. I think it just solidifies what we're talking about, that we have a good, solid core of running backs that are going to help our football team this year."
Gill pointed out Pierson's speed, which has been the talk of camp.
"He can turn the corner," Gill said, "outrun some people out there and make some things happen. He's not a guy that is going to be an every-down back, just because of his size, but whenever he touches the football he has the chance to go the distance."