UW Health Sports Medicine 

Lucas at Large: Watchful eyes on him, Johnson performs well

FB_110923_Johnson_Shelton.jpgWisconsin's Shelton Johnson doesn't mind having DeMontie Cross looking over his shoulder.

On the contrary, it's been helpful, instructive.

"That's the way anyone gets better,'' Johnson said.

Johnson is a fourth-year safety and Cross is a first-year safeties coach.

It's not like Cross is literally looking over Johnson's shoulder, either.

During practice, Cross likes to stand 20 to 30 yards behind the secondary.

"I know that he loves being back there,'' Johnson said. "When he's anywhere else on the field, he says that he can't tell what's going on.''

Cross, a former free safety at Missouri, doesn't have any problem with his voice carrying.

"He definitely makes sure you hear him,'' Johnson said.

So far this season, Johnson has been making some noise with his play -- including sharing UW's Defensive Player of the Week award for the Northern Illinois game with linebacker Mike Taylor.

"It's a great feeling to see how far you've come and what your coaches think of your play,'' Johnson said of the recognition. "I'm getting more comfortable with everyone around me and the calls.''

That shows up in the stats. Johnson leads the defense with 3.5 tackles for loss. Maybe the biggest difference in his game has been his comprehension of what he's seeing from the offense.

"It's probably just making my reads,'' he said, "and actually believing in my reads.''

In 2010, Johnson got one start against Minnesota while being the backup to Jay Valai. That was a stage in his development where he was still coming to terms with the nuances of the position.

"I know last year I hesitated a lot,'' he said. "If I saw something -- I'd know what I was supposed to do -- but there was that moment of hesitation where you're really not sure.

"I've been able to pull the trigger a lot more this year.''

Even though he's now a starter, he hasn't prepared any differently.

"When I was with Jay (Valai), we would definitely stay together on the game plan,'' Johnson said. "So I don't know that my preparation has changed a lot or been affected by starting.

"Like the coaches always say, 'You're always a play away as the No. 2.' So you have to prepare like a starter. Is there more urgency this year? Definitely.''

Johnson, who hails from Carrollton, Texas, was named to the Academic All-Big Ten team last season. Up until now, though, he has been known primarily for two things.

During a practice, he caught David Gilreath from behind.

During a game, he caught Kyle Middlebrooks from behind

Gilreath can run. So can Middlebrooks. That speaks to Johnson's speed, especially in context with Gilreath who returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown against Ohio State last season.

Middlebrooks had something similar in mind for Arizona State, but Johnson tackled Middlebrooks before he reached the end zone on the final play of the first half.

Dez Southward slowed him down and Johnson made the touchdown-saving play.

Johnson later said, "I hope that I'm known for more than just that one play someday.''

That's what he has been working on this season. More than anything, he has enjoyed working closer to the line of scrimmage. At times, he'll even line up as the nickel back.

"You're right there in the action,'' he said. "You're around the ball. Who wouldn't love that?''

UW coach Bret Bielema loves the way Johnson has responded to an expanded role.

"He's playing his butt off,'' he said. "He had a really, really good game (against NIU).''

Who was the first person he called when he was recognized as Defensive Player of the Week?

"I didn't have to call and tell anyone,'' Johnson said. "My mother (Angela) is on UWBadgers.com all the time. She finds out stuff before I do sometimes. She's my No. 1 fan.''

Johnson's mom is an assistant principal.

"When I went to school,'' he said with a smirk, "I couldn't do anything wrong.''

He's finding the same holds true on defense.

"You have to take the coaching,'' Johnson agreed.