Back on Signing Day, when Arizona safety Adam Hall and cornerback Jonathan McKnight still had intact and original ACLs, the Wildcats’ secondary was one of the deepest positions on the team.
The Cats also had returning starters Trevin Wade and Robert Golden, plus gifted sophomores such as Shaquille Richardson and Marquis Flowers, as well some redshirts looking to make a depth-chart move — Jourdon Grandon and Josh Robbins.
With such a crowd in the defensive backfield, coach Mike Stoops nonetheless looked at his list of new Wildcats on Feb. 2 and singled out a kid who had committed just a day earlier — cornerback Cortez Johnson from New Orleans.
“Cortez will be a guy who will compete right off the bat for playing time,” Stoops said.
Not only compete, as it turns out, but win that playing time.
Johnson figures to be one of Arizona’s most valuable true freshmen when the season kicks off Saturday against NAU. He not only impressed with his play during camp, but injuries to Hall and McKnight have elevated Johnson to the third cornerback position and a spot on the field when the team deploys its dime coverage (six defensive backs).
“You just know about a certain player,” Stoops said, asked about his confident remarks about Johnson on Signing Day.
“He’s pretty much a slam dunk kind of guy. We knew he was a great player. You don’t see many corners that size who has that much range, athletic ability. There are a lot of things about him that stood out as a player.”
It didn’t seem to be that obvious, though. Scout.com gave Johnson the courtesy of a two-star rating (out of five) and deemed him merely the 167th-best cornerback in the country. Rivals.com gave him three stars, but didn’t rank him among the top 65 cornerbacks.
Johnson wasn’t swimming in offers from SEC schools. He committed to UA over Pittsburgh. Minnesota and Southern Miss were among his other scholarship offers.
Six months after Signing Day, Johnson checked in to Arizona at 6-2, 190, physically ready to play.
“Before I got here, I really didn’t have that much confidence because I was new to this, but as the days went on, I got more and more confidence just by having Rob Golden and Trevin Wade helping me,” Johnson said.
“They said, ‘Just be yourself. Play your game. When Coach is looking at you, don’t try to do more that you do. Just play your game.’”
That game also includes a healthy dose of trash-talking and a willingness to immediately mix it up in practice with Arizona’s veteran receivers. If he lacked confidence, it was hard to tell during camp.
“When I talk, that keeps me motivated a lot,” Johnson said. He added with a smile, “I really get that from Rob Golden.”
Golden is Arizona’s primary talker, and Johnson fits right in by having a certain brashness that never hurts in the one-on-one world of secondary play.
Talk is one thing. Doing is another.
The season begins.
“He has just to be more focused on the details and mentally in it every play,” said secondary coach Ryan Walters. “He’s athletic as all get-out. And he’s very football-savvy. He wants to be a great player, and that goes a long way.”
Cortez Johnson likes the TucsonCitizen Sports Network page on Facebook. Shouldn’t you too?