If you asked fans of the Wisconsin football team what they know about redshirt junior Shelton Johnson, they would probably all refer to a specific play from last year’s duel with Arizona State in Madison.
Quarterback Scott Tolzien had just found Lance Kendricks in the end zone before halftime to give the Badgers a 13-10 lead over the Sun Devils, but UW left one second on the clock and was forced to kick off to ASU one more time before the teams could head into the locker room.
The Sun Devils had already run a kickoff back 97 yards and returned a punt for a touchdown — although the latter was called back for an illegal block. Badger fans braced themselves as the special teams trotted onto the field once again.
ASU’s Kyle Middlebrooks took the ball from inside the three-yard line and sprinted right through a hole in UW’s coverage. He turned outside to sprint down the ASU sideline and appeared to be heading toward a last-second touchdown.
But suddenly, Middlebrooks found himself locked in a foot race with Johnson, who came sprinting from the other side of the field with Dezmen Southward.
Southward dove from behind and slowed Middlebrooks for a moment, allowing Johnson to gain a half step. He leaped for Middlebrooks’ torso and twisted him downward. Middlebrooks tried to extend his arms as best he could, but he came up one yard shy of a touchdown.
Time expired and the Wisconsin sideline happily exited the field for the locker room.
The Badgers went on to escape with a 20-19 victory — the game-winning play came off a blocked ASU extra point in the fourth quarter. Had Middlebrooks scored on that kickoff to give the Sun Devils a 17-13 lead, the dynamic of the game would’ve been changed for the second half and UW might not have escaped with a victory.
In the months between then and now, though, Johnson has gone from the special team’s savior-of-the-day to the defense’s new starting strong safety opposite second team All-Big Ten free safety Aaron Henry. And he’s looking to give Badger fans more reasons to know his name.
Johnson’s predecessor, Jay Valai, earned a bit of a reputation as a hard-hitting safety for the Badgers, and if you ask Henry how fans will know Johnson best, it will be as a hitter as well.
“I don’t know where he generates all of it from, I guess it’s his center of gravity, but he is extremely explosive,” Henry said. “The guy probably weighs 180 on a good day. A guy being that small, that skinny — he definitely lays the wood on people, he’s definitely going to be known for his tackling, just being in the right place making plays. I think midway a lot of people are going to start recognizing that.”
Johnson does, indeed, have modest size. He stands at six feet and is listed at 186 pounds. Henry, by comparison, stands the same but weighs nearly 30 pounds more.
It’s easy to forget a safety’s responsibilities spread beyond the passing game. While usually lining up 10 yards off the ball, safeties do line up and make plays all over the field over the course of one game, be it downfield, at the line of scrimmage or in the backfield.
They can function as an extra linebacker at times, situating themselves five yards off the line of scrimmage and sometimes even closer. And that means taking on the monsters of the game, where a 300-pound offensive lineman can target the safety. But that doesn’t worry Johnson, no matter his size.
“Oh yeah, it’s a part of football,” Johnson said. “It’s the game I love. I like making plays on the ball. I like it all, it’s my job.”
Valai dealt with a few nagging injuries last season, which opened the door for Johnson to test the waters as the team’s safety. He started one game last year, against Minnesota, where he recorded three tackles but came away unsatisfied with his performance.
Safeties are counted on to fill in the gaps on rushing plays, especially the ones that go outside. They’re expected to meet the running back at the line of scrimmage, despite having to run 10 yards to get there, and they can’t afford to hesitate.
But safeties also can’t afford to guess wrong on a play-action, since that would remove them from helping out a cornerback on a deep pass.
This read-and-react balancing game is something Johnson says he struggled with against Minnesota.
“I think mostly it was a confidence issue, like I had a lot of opportunities to make plays on the ball where I might have hesitated for a second and then that basically took me out of the play, but allowed the other team to make a play,” Johnson said. “So I just think being quick on the trigger will help me a lot more.”
“I know I hesitated a lot last year so I’m just trying to believe what I see, just go after it, just make plays this year.”
Confidence is where Henry says he’s seen the most improvement in Johnson since last fall. He said the uncertainty of whether Johnson would receive playing time at safety for the oft-injured Valai might have affected Johnson’s mentality.
But now that Valai has graduated from the program the job is all for the taking, and Johnson can finally focus on being a strong starting safety.
That has Johnson smiling at the idea that he can make some more memorable plays.
“I’m just trying to make a lot more of those ASU tackles — not just on special teams obviously, but on defense,” Johnson said. “I’m just out here trying to make plays so hopefully [the fans] ntotice that this season.”
“I’m just trying to add on to that résumé.”