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BYU football notes: Smart decisions make Johnson a good safety

Intelligence has the former walk-on as defensive starter

PROVO — Scott Johnson, throughout his high school and college career, has earned the label of being a smart, durable and versatile football player.

So when BYU's coaches were looking for someone to replace departed free safety Kellen Fowler from last year's team, Johnson's name quickly came to mind. The senior former preferred walk-on from Timpview High, who played boundary corner last year until a pulled groin sidelined him late in the season, welcomed the change in responsibility.

"I've always considered the mental side of the game as one of my strengths, so it's exciting for me to be able to play that role for the team," said Johnson, referring to the defensive quarterback duties of the free safety.

Not only was Johnson the logical choice because of his experience and football savvy, moving him to safety has also provided opportunity for the Cougars recruits at the corner back position.

"I've got the most experience of any of the DBs here, so now I'm able to pass that along to the younger guys and help them with their roles and responsibilities. I'm probably the guy on the team who understands our defense more than anyone," Johnson said.

As the free safety, the player with everything in front of him, Johnson will read the offensive formations and be the one who makes sure the other defenders are in the right spots and in the correct coverage. Defensive back coach Jaime Hill has given him the green light to make a lot of on-field defensive play calling.

"We are going to be very good at that position. I have no concerns and no worries at all," Hill said.

Fellow safety Andrew Rich believes Johnson was the perfect pick for the free safety job because of his knowledge and because, assignment wise, the position is similar to the boundary corner spot. From his perspective, Johnson has handled the transition smoothly.

"Ever since I've been here, he's known this defense. Schematically, he just knows what's going on. He's very good at putting us in the right spots to make plays. I think he's a great player and that he's going to have a great season," Rich said.

Together, Johnson and Rich appear to be a perfect match at the back of the Cougar defensive backfield.

"Sometimes he looks at me and we decide what to do," Rich said. "Basically we're the communicators out there and dictate what we're going to do according to the formations and the strengths of the offense."

Hill tells his safeties that at the end of each game, they should be more mentally tired than physically tired. Johnson is beginning to understand what Hill means by that.

"The hardest part of this game is understanding it. That's what I'm working on. I've been learning about different situations we're going to be in, asking a lot of questions, having coach Hill help me with that, and I'm understanding things a lot better every day," Johnson said.

ANOTHER LEG TO LEAN ON: Right now it appears junior Mitch Payne will be the Cougars' placekicker. At punter, freshman Riley Stephenson from Pineview High appears to be the guy. However, Stephenson showed in practice Thursday that he's a very capable placekicker as well. After Payne missed a 47-yard attempt, barely to the right, Stephenson got the next chance and split the uprights from 33 yards out. Payne later connected on a 27-yard attempt. Payne's longest field goal last season came from 45 yards. In high school, Stephenson once connected from 55 yards.

e-mail: jimr@desnews.com