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Safety showing Utah is right place for him

Ute safety Robert Johnson returns an interception against UCLA during his first start. The L.A. native is loving life in Utah.
Ute safety Robert Johnson returns an interception against UCLA during his first start. The L.A. native is loving life in Utah.
Scott G. Winterton, Deseret Morning News

Robert Johnson is a delightful young man who's been smiling a lot lately as the starting free safety for the Utah football team.

Johnson, a JC transfer from Los Angeles, earned a starting spot before the UCLA victory, then after sitting out a couple of games with an injured shoulder was back on the field for the win over Louisville.

Not coincidentally, the Utes have had their two best performances with Johnson on the field, and coach Kyle Whittingham says Johnson should continue starting the rest of the season, barring injury.

"He's got a great deal of speed and athleticism and has great range," Whittingham said. "When he got his opportunity, he made the best of it."

The 6-foot-3, 185-pound Johnson is not only from L.A. but from one of the toughest parts, known as South Central, or Watts, which has a reputation as a tough neighborhood. Johnson doesn't down-play how tough it was.

"It's real tough — people are getting killed every day," he said. "It's part of life. I know people that got shot and died."

One of them was his father, Wayne, who was shot and killed when Robert was 6 years old.

Johnson was recruited by Ute assistant Kalani Sitake and since then the two have bonded "like family," according to each.

Sitake can tell you about the rough neighborhood Johnson lives in as he recalls his first visit there.

"When I pulled up to his house, he was waiting out front for me, which I thought was kind of different," Sitake said. "He seemed kind of anxious to get us out of there."

After Sitake parked his rental car and started to go into the house, Johnson said, "Uh, you better bring that bag with you," pointing to a bag in his car.

Sitake picked up his bag, and Johnson said, "You might want to bring that bag, too," pointing to another bag in the car.

Then Johnson noticed the GPS device common in rental cars and told Sitake he better bring that inside also. When the coach told him he couldn't, because it was attached to the dashboard, Johnson warned him, saying, "That might not be there when you get back."

After that, the two would meet at school when Sitake paid a visit.

Sitake almost discovered Johnson by accident.

He was in Los Angeles watching a game between Citrus JC and Southwest JC to see Josh Broughton, a defensive back for Citrus, who had already committed to Utah.

Sitake was aware of Johnson and knew he had missed his freshman year due to injury but hadn't seen him play.

"He was tall and rangy," Sitake said. "I was intrigued by him."

Then Sitake saw him on the field and all Johnson did that day was pick off two passes, returning one for a touchdown and the other to the 5-yard line.

"I was shocked he wasn't a big-time recruited guy," said Sitake, who jumped right on him.

When Sitake had the chance to talk to Johnson later in the season, he was impressed with his personality and said, "he seemed like a perfect fit. I thought he would thrive in this environment."

As the season progressed, other schools started to recruit him, including Washington, Washington State, Arizona State and San Jose State. Johnson enjoyed his visit to Salt Lake and while on his visit to Pullman, Wash., called Sitake to commit.

Ute coaches saw right from the start that Johnson was very talented, but because he didn't start practicing until August and was still learning the Utah system, he didn't start right away.

Once he got his chance, Johnson came up with two interceptions in the win over UCLA. After separating his shoulder, he was forced to wear a device to keep his arm in place last week at Louisville, which meant he couldn't stretch for interceptions.

However, this week when San Diego State visits Rice-Eccles Stadium, Johnson plans to have much better range of motion.

The game has special meaning since Johnson's uncle, Beveren Means, played running back for the Aztecs in the early 1990s. Although he lives in Texas, he plans to be on hand for Saturday's game.

Johnson also hopes his mother, Wanda, and one of his brothers is able to make the game. They were going to come up for the UCLA game, but car trouble kept them from making it. They did make it to the UNLV game, but unfortunately Johnson injured his shoulder in the first quarter and hardly played.

Utah defensive coordinator Gary Andersen said recently there's no one else happier to be in Salt Lake than Robert Johnson.

Johnson doesn't disagree.

"I'm really happy to be here," he said. "I can walk around here and not worry about getting shot."

Utes on the air

San Diego State (2-3, 1-0) at Utah (3-3, 0-2)

Saturday, 1 p.m., Rice-Eccles Stadium

Radio: 700AM TV: None