"Potential" is one of the most dangerous and double-edged labels in all of sports. One one had, it's clearly complimentary of a player's ability and future development. On the other hand, it also means they that haven't made the expected impact as of yet.
Over his four years at Arizona State, safety Keelan Johnson has been labeled with "potential", and it's easy to see why. He has a rare combination of size (6'0", 202 pounds), speed and athleticism, and throughout his career, he's teased the team and fans with flashes of that potential.
Now a senior, Johnson is heading into fall camp as the team's starter at field safety and has some lofty goals for the 2012 season. We caught up with Johnson to get his thoughts on the new defense, the talent at safety and how he can deliver on his talent.
Brad Denny: Last year was a tale of two seasons. In your opinion, what happened to cause that 0-5 finish?
Keelan Johnson: We just lost sight of individual games, the games that mattered at that moment, and started thinking ahead to the Rose Bowl, instead of the teams we should beat and could beat.
BD: Since coming in, Coach Graham has made a major effort to completely revamp the culture of the program. What has that transition been like for you and your thoughts on how the team as a whole has taken to them?
KJ: Personally, I don't have a choice but to buy in going into my senior year. I have to buy into the program and follow what they have laid out for myself and the team. The team is transitioning well. It's something we are not used to from last year. Now, guys are really liking the foundation that's being laid down and are elevating to the next level.
BD: With Eddie Elder and Clint Floyd departing, the team's lost both starters from a year ago. Combined with Omar Bolden moving on, the secondary is losing a lot of experience and leadership. What impact have those players had on your career?
KJ: Have self-confidence. Motivate the guys. Help them through the tough times when they think they can't make it through it. Always bring positive emotion to the program, to your workouts and to the classroom.
BD: You're a player whose physical ability is immense, and that has translated into the "potential" tag for the last few seasons. How do you turn "potential" into "production"?
KJ: Studying the game more. Taking my workouts, taking everything more seriously. Not just trying to get the job done based on talent, and also seeing yourself being the guy that you want to be.
BD: One of the most exciting changes between last year and this is the move on defense is the shift to a much more aggressive defensive mindset. What's that transition been like for the guys on defense?
KJ: I think it's great. We have a lot of corners and a lot of safeties, and we're planning on using them in our type of defense, which allows us to do a lot of other things. We have three great linemen, Will Sutton, Jake (Sheffield) and whoever else they decide to play who are able to disrupt the front with just those three guys. That allows us to sit back and make plays on the ball.
BD: From a safety's perspective, compare the changes between last season's defense and this year's? What aspects are you most looking forward to?
KJ: There's a lot more freedom and range that the safeties are capable of doing. Cover 8 defense last year, you were responsible for your guy. Our defense this year allows us to read the quarterback much more and make more plays on the ball.
BD: What are your thoughts about secondary coach Chris Ball so far? How are the defensive backs taking to him?
KJ: Coach Ball is a great guy. He's introduced me to a couple of corners that he has coached that speak highly of him. Seeing a former player that is playing in the league and doing all those things come back and speak highly of Coach Ball, you don't have a choice but to really connect with him. A lot of the guys are really comfortable with him.
BD: With fellow safeties like Alden Darby, Chris Young, Kevin Ayers and Ezekiel Bishop, the position is certainly not lacking in athleticism and playmaking ability. How would you characterize the Sun Devil safeties heading into 2012?
KJ: I expect nothing but great things. Kevin Ayers has been here a while, he's familiar with the program. Ezekiel Bishop went out a little early but he's mentally prepared to come in if we call his number. Myself, I have a great understanding of the defense and the things it brings to the table. Darby, he's always going to bring it. He's one of those guys the secondary always looks up to, because he's always just high strung. I feel he's going to have a great breakout this year.
BD: With the team having lost several key leaders from a year ago, and you've been one of several players stepping up to fill that void. How do you feel the leadership element is developing on this year's roster?
KJ: During difficult times, you're going to find out who your leaders are. These workouts, we've just been grinding. Going into Tontozona, your body is going to be weak, and I feel like that's where the leaders will emerge for this season.
BD: What are your major goals for your senior season and beyond?
KJ: My biggest goal is to be the Defensive Player of the Year in the Pac-12 and win the Jim Thorpe Award.
BD: The overriding theme since Coach Graham's arrival in December has been "Speaking Victory". How do you define that term?
KJ: Speaking victory is staying humble and staying hungry at the same time. Knowing what you have to do to get your job done.
BD: What do you feel is the one X-factor--whether it's a player, scheme, mentality--for this team to succeed this fall?
KJ: I think that would be our special teams. Our special teams players...Jamal Miles, you get him the ball, you already know how electrifying he is.