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Cam Johnson has become a quiet presence for Virginia's defense

By Steve Yanda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 30, 2010; 12:43 AM

CHARLOTTESVILLE - Virginia safeties coach Anthony Poindexter raises his hands out beyond the lengths of his shoulders to supplement his point. Junior defensive end Cam Johnson, the Cavaliers' best quarterback chaser, had just left the practice field moments earlier, his forehead still dripping with sweat, and Poindexter was trying to explain the dichotomy between Johnson's 6-foot-4, 265-pound frame and his hushed demeanor.

"You look at that big body, and you think there's going to be a roar coming out of it," Poindexter said. "But he's a soft-spoken kid. If you were in the locker room, you wouldn't even know he's in there because he's not a loud, boisterous person."

Burdened by a deficient pass rush, the Cavaliers have learned that they don't need Johnson to make a lot of noise on the field, but they certainly need him to weigh on the minds of the quarterbacks he pursues. Quietly, Johnson has done just that this season, tallying team highs in sacks (six) and tackles for a loss (11) and - perhaps most importantly - delivering consistent effort for the first time in his collegiate career.

When Virginia (3-4, 0-3 ACC) hosts No. 22 Miami (5-2, 3-1) on Saturday, the Cavaliers' defense will be charged with making strong-armed and audacious Hurricanes quarterback Jacory Harris as inefficient a passer as possible. A significant part of that responsibility will lie with Virginia's front four. And given that Johnson has tallied nearly two-thirds of the Cavaliers' sacks this season, his role in disrupting Miami's passing attack will be crucial.

Harris has thrown 14 touchdown passes this season, but also 10 interceptions. Five of those picks came in Miami's two losses. Flustering Harris has been established as a focal point in the blueprint for defeating the Hurricanes. The question is whether Virginia can accomplish that task.

Virginia has recorded two sacks in its last four games and has registered more than one sack against a division I-A opponent just once this season. As Johnson - who spent his first two college seasons as an outside linebacker in former coach Al Groh's 3-4 base defensive alignment - has become more familiar with his role on the defensive line in the 4-3 scheme, his coaches have pressed him to be even more of a factor in games, even if as a muted disturbance.

"I think there's more that Cam can give, and I'm going to ask more of him, because he's going to have to play better and give more as we start going down the stretch here," Virginia Coach Mike London said. "You know, people talk about big-time players make big plays in big games, and he's going to have to be one of those guys as we go down the stretch, providing a pass rush. . . .

"When you're straining against those big guys versus the run, when it gets down to a third and 10 and you've got to muster up all the strength you can to rush off the edge - and do it consistently - when he can do that consistently, then we'll talk about him being something special. But right now, he's learning how to put his hands in the ground and do those things."

Defensive line coach Jeff Hanson said that in the past 10 months, Johnson has transformed from "a guy that, from what I understand, never really knew how to work" to a player who has "gotten more consistent with his practice effort." A two-sport star in football and basketball at Gonzaga, Johnson took plays off during spring practice, according to Hanson. Even during training camp in August, London talked about getting Johnson "to want to do it every snap."

Hanson said the coaches have talked to Johnson about how his quickness and athleticism could one day translate well on Sundays in the NFL.

"And we've also convinced him that to be a good football team that everybody has to do their part," Hanson said. "And he's come to understand that also."

Johnson said the transition from linebacker to defensive end was rough at first in terms of "where I'm supposed to be and how I'm supposed to get there."

But Johnson, who ranks third on the team in tackles, said his comprehension of assignments has improved, an assertion reflected by his production on Saturdays. Opposing offenses have begun scheming to attempt to slow down Johnson, a fact Johnson's father, Eugene, said his son feels comfortable boasting to his parents and very few others.

"It's like a light switch, I guess," Eugene Johnson said. "At one point he decided, 'I'm going to turn this light on, just to see what happens.' And then he turned it on and it was real bright, and he was like, 'Man, I like that feeling.' I guess he wanted to do it again. And now it's just unstoppable with him."

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