By Jim Vertuno
The Associated Press
AUSTIN, Texas — As a fast guy, perhaps one of the fastest players in the Big 12 if not the entire country, Texas’ Daje Johnson was asked Monday to recall if he had ever been run down from behind.
Johnson paused for several moments, rolled his eyes while he pondered it, and dug deep into his memory to find an answer: Yes, once. As a high school freshman, an opponent made a desperate tackle by slapping at his heels.
That’s about it.
“It’s just something you have,” Johnson said of his speed. “Since little league football, I was just outrunning everybody.”
Johnson’s combination of speed and power in his 5-foot-10, 180-pound frame has No. 15 Texas (1-0) promising big things from the sophomore this season and he’s already drawing comparisons to some of the top all-around Longhorns athletes of the last 25 years, such as Eric Metcalf.
“I think,” Texas coach Mack Brown said, “he can be really good.”
Johnson burned New Mexico State with touchdowns of 66 yards and 24 yards, sparking an offense that sputtered for most of the first half in what ended as a 56-7 rout.
Johnson’s first TD came on a pass from David Ash that gave Texas a 14-7 halftime lead. The second came on a run out of the backfield for the Longhorns’ next score early in the third quarter.
He’s also slated as one of the Longhorns top choices as a punt returner. That’s a lot of ball skills for a player who first committed to TCU as a defensive back until Texas assistant Major Applewhite lured him to the Longhorns with all the ways Johnson could score touchdowns.
Applewhite saw in Johnson a rare combination of shifty moves, break-away speed, power running and good receiving skills didn’t want them sitting idle on defense.
“I couldn’t see him playing anywhere without the ball in his hands,” Applewhite said.
But even with tons of potential, Johnson struggled to get on the field as a freshman. He averaged 11.5 yards every time he touched the ball and scored touchdowns of 84 and 45 yards, but because he often was late to practice and meetings, Johnson often found himself on the sideline.
“I had to work on that. I’m more serious, more focused and ready to play,” Johnson said.
Johnson corrected bad habits once he was presented of what he could be in Texas’ new up-tempo offense, and he’s been torching his teammates in practice since last spring. Junior cornerback Quandre Diggs has nicknamed Johnson “squirrel.”
“He’s so quick and he’s low to the ground,” Diggs said. “I don’t think he likes it very much, but I don’t care.”
For the record, Johnson doesn’t like it but has yet to get anything else to stick. Johnson offered other choices such as “Big Play Daje” and “Black Mako,” as in the shark.
“I’m not really thrilled about (squirrel),” Johnson said. “I have to change that.”
Texas plays at BYU (0-1) on Saturday and Longhorns fans will want to see more from Johnson before they’ll be lured in by the promise of potential. The last four years, they begged to see more of speedy D.J. Monroe, who had similar speed but only teased them with the rare touchdown.
Johnson’s coaches see a bigger skill set as a receiver and a tough runner in Johnson.
“You see him run between tackles and break tackles. He’s got phenomenal hands. He’s got return game skills,” Applewhite said.
But it’s Johnson’s speed that bedazzles teammates. Johnson said he hasn’t timed in the 40-yard dash since high school, when he says he ran a 4.3
“That kind of speed is amazing,” running back Malcolm Brown said, comparing it to the stuff of comic book superheroes. “He’s like Flash. He’s out of there.”