There was a moment during the 2018 season when Clemson safety Denzel Johnson, then a redshirt junior, made a play that gave his confidence a big boost and helped him settle in as a player the Tigers depended over the course of their championship run.
On a second-and-10 play against Texas A&M on Sept. 8 in College Station, with Clemson leading 14-3 midway through the second quarter, Johnson put his foot in the ground, changed direction, broke on a corner route by tight end Jace Sternberger and batted away a pass from quarterback Kellen Mond.
Following another incompletion on third down, A&M settled for a 50-yard field goal attempt, which was blocked by the Tigers and kept the Aggies off the scoreboard.
“From that moment on, I just knew I belonged here,” Johnson said Tuesday following Clemson’s final practice of fall camp ahead of the 2019 season. “My confidence shot through the roof after that.”
By the end of last year, Johnson was in games in a lot of key moments as he contributed to Clemson winning the national title. He and Nolan Turner stepped up to provide the team with much-needed functional depth at safety behind starters K’Von Wallace and Tanner Muse.
Now entering his final season with the Tigers, Johnson has his sights set on a strong finish to his career. He is expected to again play a significant role in the secondary and hopes to build upon the success he had last year.
“My goals for the season are to be a great leader, show everybody what I can do, and just take advantage of the opportunities that I get,” he said.
Johnson played in all 15 games for Clemson last season, posting 40 tackles (2.0 for loss) and three pass breakups in 378 snaps. He enters 2019 with 56 career tackles in 485 snaps across 40 games.
It took some time for the former A.C. Flora (Columbia, S.C.) standout to learn Brent Venables’ complex defensive scheme, but Johnson has made big strides in that department as he’s gained more experience.
“I kind of struggled with the knowledge, being that we have a lot of plays on defense,” he said with a smile. “But I feel like knowledge is what I’ve improved on a lot.”
Having wrapped up fall camp, the Tigers now turn their full attention to the 2019 season-opener against Georgia Tech at Death Valley on Aug. 29.
Although kickoff is still a little more than a week away, the adrenaline has already started to flow for Johnson in anticipation of the contest.
“That started, honestly when fall started for me,” he said. “Obviously it’s closer, so it’s just rushing more and more. I’m ready.”
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