In 2008, Keelan Johnson began his ASU career with a lot of expectations. The Mesa High product was set to play for his hometown college, and he was ranked as the No. 3 defensive back and the No. 18 overall high school player in Arizona, according to Rivals.com.
Johnson’s physical abilities were shown in glimpses throughout his tenure in Tempe, but he was never able to fully put everything together. However, in his final season as a Sun Devil, the redshirt senior safety is in the midst of his best statistical season and fulfilling previously untapped potential.
“I’ve been watching this season, and I’ve been impressed,” former ASU cornerback and current Denver Bronco Omar Bolden said. “He has stepped his game up — he has the tools to be great and he’s putting it together. I enjoy watching him play. Just seeing him do the things I’ve known he was capable of doing makes me happy.”
Junior safety Alden Darby plays and practices alongside Johnson in the ASU secondary, which the two have dubbed the “No Fly Zone.” Prior to fall camp, Darby predicted Johnson would have a breakout season because of a certain change he noticed in his teammate.
“He’s always had the talent and ability, but it was mental,” Darby said. “I saw him pick up huge in the offseason, and I knew what kind of season he was going to have. That’s what changed, his mental game.”
Not only did Darby witness a shift in Johnson’s mental approach to the game, but he also watched Johnson emerge as a leader.
When Johnson was announced as a team captain on Aug. 26, coach Todd Graham said he deserved the title, but also admitted he was a bit surprised.
However, those who spend the offseason with Johnson and are familiar with his work ethic were not surprised at all.
“He’s not one of those guys that is late, he’s early,” Mesa High football coach Kelley Moore said. “He leads not just by speaking, but by walking the walk as well. He always puts in the time, and he always had time for other people as far as helping them with their technique. Keelan’s definitely one of those guys that when you are around him long enough, he makes you better.”
Darby said Johnson would constantly call him during the offseason wanting to work out, condition or watch film to get better. Johnson would also pick his teammate up and drive him to the field if Darby had no transportation.
Because of this off-the-field commitment and intense work ethic, Bolden — who was also a captain during his time at ASU — simply said, “I don’t see anybody better for the job besides him and Brandon (Magee).”
Following a few satisfactory seasons and going through a coaching change prior to his senior season, it would have been easy for Johnson to simply mail it in and not step up as the leader he’s become, but Johnson knew what he was capable of and simply needed to put in the effort necessary to achieve it.
“I felt it was my last year,” Johnson said. “I needed to buy in, and I needed the guys around me to buy in if I wanted to have a successful team. I knew it was going to take a lot of the seniors to do it, and I think we came in here and changed the whole mindset of this program.”
The redshirt senior has career highs in tackles (66) and passes defended (7) this season. He also had interceptions in games against Utah and Oregon State.
When Johnson sprints out of Tillman Tunnel and onto Frank Kush Field to face off against Washington State on Saturday, he will be doing it for the final time as a Sun Devil. Johnson knows it will be a memorable moment in front of several friends and family members.
“It’s going to be one of those last-minute emotions where I tell my guys, ‘I love playing with you all, I’ll miss you and I hope to see great things from you,’” Johnson said. “Coming out of the tunnel Saturday is going to be my last moment here, my last time playing in front of my family in my hometown.”
If being selected as a captain and driving players to workouts is not enough to document Johnson’s value to the team, then two simple sentences from redshirt senior cornerback Deveron Carr will show any ASU fan what Johnson means to his teammates.
“Keelan Johnson is an awesome person,” Carr said. “You couldn’t ask for a better friend, brother or safety.”
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