During his high school days, linebacker Devodrick "Buddy" Johnson was a workhorse.
When he was not leading his team in tackles, he was leading in rushing and receiving yards, not to mention he played quarterback as well. Johnson was the type of player that was as reliable as he was versatile. It was that "worker" mentality which made him successful at Texas A&M, it was the same mentality that helped get drafted.
In his freshman year with the Aggies, Johnson featured in 12 games. In those games, he produced 20 tackles with a sack, 1.5 tackles for loss, and three QB hurries. The following year, Johnson featured against in 12 games and increased his tackles (27) and tackles for loss (1.5). In his junior year, Johnson evolved into one of the most reliable and productive defensive players on the Aggies roster. In 13 starts, Johnson led his team in tackles with 77, while being third on the team in tackles for loss with 9.5. His most notable moment came against Ole Miss when he recovered a fumble and returned it 62 yards for a touchdown. By his senior year, Johnson was one of the top linebackers in the SEC, and a Butkus Award semifinalist. As a veteran leader on the conference's top defensive unit, Johnson led his team in tackles with 85, and set career highs in sacks (5) and passes defended (3).
Johnson's style is reminiscent of linebackers from the 1990s and early 2000s. When it comes to the fundamentals in playing the position, Johnson is exemplary; an aggressive, hard-hitting tackler that embraces contact. Though he has some limitations as an overall athlete, Johnson brings to the table the type of durability and motor that can fit in any era of football.
Taking On Blocks
What defines Johnson as a player is his willingness to engage physically, no matter the size of the opposing player. One of his noticeable strengths on film is his ability to take on bigger blockers. Considering he is slightly above 6'0, one would rightly assume he would have problems shedding blocks. Luckily for the Pittsburgh Steelers, Johnson is fundamentally sound in this aspect.
In this sequence, North Carolina's offense is showing a 20 personnel package. Johnson is seen positioned as the right inside linebacker. When the ball is snapped, the Tar Heels offense executes their power sequence with the right guard and tackle pulling left. Johnson detects this and makes his way to the outside gap. He is quickly encountered by the Tar Heel's tackle, #74 and engages with him. Notice how Johnson lowers his pad level enough to get under the shoulder pads. This enables him to neutralize the opposing lineman, then shed, and make his way to the ball carrier. The fluidity in which he could do this is impressive to watch.
Johnson The Playmaker
As noted earlier, Johnson carries some limitations as an overall athlete. Does not have high-level speed, nor is he overly flexible. Yet Johnson compensates this with good instincts, a great nose for the ball, and decent sideline-to-sideline range.
In this instance, Johnson is seen positioned as the inside linebacker on the left against the Florida Gators offense. When the ball is snapped, the Gators run their power sequence with the right guard and tight end leading the way. An important aspect to note about Johnson is his ability to stay patient and make calculated moves. In this sequence, he makes his move once the ball is handed off. He flows through the block and once again finds the ball carrier. Not only does he stop him in his tracks, he forces the ball out, which is eventually recovered by one of the Aggies defenders. This play would ultimately lead an Aggies game-winning field goal.
Johnson In Pass Coverage
It is no secret that Johnson's area of weakness is in coverage situations. By nature, Johnson has tight, rigid hips, which makes him vulnerable to receivers on short or intermediate routes. In today's NFL, linebackers are asked to contribute in coverage, as most offenses use crossing routes to expose the middle of a decent. For Johnson, improvement in this area is paramount if he wishes to be an asset on defense.
In this example, the Tennessee receiver runs a quick-out route on Johnson, positioned outside his traditional linebacker spot. Johnson did an adequate job shadowing the receiver, though he flipped his hips too early, giving the receiver enough room to break outside. Johnson was likely unaware that the receiver was stemming his outside shoulder as a means of getting leverage on him in that direction. With more coaching and experience, Johnson's awareness could improve in these situations.
Johnson is far from a finished product, but brings a skillset that can be useful on special teams to start. As he did with Texas A&M, his work ethic should allow to move up the depth chart, as the Steelers are in need of quality depth at the inside linebacker position. If he can improve in his areas of weakness and continue to evolve as a playmaker, he can become an impact player in a short period of time.