N.C. State’s secondary came into the season with plenty of questions, including who would replace David Amerson and Earl Wolff, who were drafted by the Washington Redskins and Philadelphia Eagles, respectively.
Hakim Jones has stepped up at the strong safety position – second on the team in tackles with a pass breakup – but when the Wolfpack takes on Clemson Thursday night, senior Dontae Johnson will be under a magnifying glass.
Johnson served as the No. 2 corner last season alongside Amerson, but he will be expected to shut down one of the most explosive college receivers in Sammy Watkins. The 6-foot-2, 195-pound corner has faced tough competition in the past – holding Wake Forest’s Michael Campanero to five catches for 14 yards – but admitted there’s no easy way to prepare for a wideout like Watkins.
Q: What is it going to be like to prepare to match up against Watkins?
Johnson: Preparing for someone like Sammy Watkins, you’ve got to stay focused on your technique and the little things. Things like simple transitions and breaks, I’ve got to make sure I’m exploding out of those. You can’t really simulate (Watkins’) talent, speed or athletic abilities, so I’ve got to focus on making the transition from the scout team to the field a lot smoother.
Q: Scouts are looking at Watkins, but they’ll also be looking at the guy matched up with him. Is this game is going to be bigger for you because of that?
Johnson: Obviously it’s going to be amplified because it’s also a Thursday night game. We’re both great athletes, but this is a team game. Clemson has great competitors in Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins, so we know there will be more eyes on us, but we have some great competitors, too. It’s going to be fun.
Q: Your second start was against No. 7 Clemson in 2011, a 37-13 win for State. What’s it like to step on the field during a huge game against a top 25 opponent at home?
Johnson: It’s huge, not just for me, but for our team and the fans. Knowing that you’re playing a great team and you’re the underdogs, because we will be the underdogs, which means the whole nation will be watching to see what Clemson can do. So it’s definitely one of those challenges that you have to step up and accept and hopefully showcase your skills and that you belong on that stage as well.
Q: More specifically, what is the atmosphere like for a Thursday night game?
Johnson: There’s nothing like it to me. It can be Thursday, Friday, Saturday or any day and we know we’d have a great fan turnout. It’s always a great atmosphere and has a great energy. The fans always have our backs and we know they’ll be there for us.
Q: What is Dontae Johnson like off the field away from Carter-Finley?
Johnson: Honestly, I’m a pretty laid back guy. I know it sounds boring, but I like to sleep a lot (he laughs). I watch movies a lot and go bowling at the Alley. I’m a pretty decent bowler, I guess. I also like to look up new sneakers and stay up on the latest fashion during my free time.
Q: What’s been the biggest adjustment as a part of this new defense?
Johnson: For me, it doesn’t have much to do with the new coaching staff. It has a lot more to do with me stepping up as a leader for this team. Before the season started, coach (Dave) Doeren came to me and told me to take on this leadership role and help get the ball rolling. That was a big change for me after having guys before me that took on that role on and off the field.
Q: What’s it like to be seen as a leader for this team defensively?
Johnson: That’s a huge honor that my teammates trust me as a leader for this defense. I appreciate it so much that my teammates think of me so highly and look to me to make plays and help carry the defense. It’s a new challenge for me to go from a complimentary player to “that guy,” is definitely a different mindset, but I’ve been willing to take on that challenge.
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