Miami Hurricanes defensive coordinator Manny Diaz had been saying it for weeks: Jaquan Johnson, the understated young man with the baby face, broad smile and gifted knack for blasting opponents off their feet with pinpoint precision, is among the best in the nation.
Former players said it constantly when he was a freshman, competitors learn it every week, and now the nation knows, too.
Johnson, a 5-11, 190-pound junior safety out of Miami Killian High, was one of just four defensive players named among 15 semifinalists for the 2017 Walter Camp Player of the Year Award, the Walter Camp Football Foundation announced Wednesday.
“The guy is unbelievable,’’ Diaz said after the Virginia Tech game, the first of two weeks in a row that Johnson earned Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Week honors. “He’s the heart and soul of our secondary. When you need a guy to make a play, that’s the guy. That’s the guy.
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“I’ve been jumping up and down on this Jaquan Johnson bandwagon for a while now. It’s neat that he made the plays that sort of the untrained eye can see, the obvious spectacular plays,’’ Diaz told WQAM recently. “Because the plays that he’s been making that have maybe been going unnoticed have been just as important. You just can’t be good in college football anymore without great safety play, because the No. 1 thing we’ve done all year in not giving up points is we don’t give up long touchdowns.
“We’ve given up one long touchdown all season and that was a bust against Toledo.”
Johnson leads the No. 2 Hurricanes (9-0, 6-0 Atlantic Coast Conference), who meet Virginia (6-4, 3-3) at noon Saturday at Hard Rock Stadium, with 66 tackles. He has forced one fumble, recovered another, and ranks second with three interceptions. He totaled a career-best 12 tackles (seven solo) in Miami's win at Florida State on Oct. 7, and added an 11-tackle performance in a win at North Carolina (Oct. 28).
The past two weeks Johnson has totaled 15 tackles and two interceptions against Virginia Tech (Nov. 4) and Notre Dame (Nov. 11).
UM is third in the nation with 16 passes intercepted, fourth with 24 takeaways, second in sacks and tackles for loss and 10th in scoring defense (16.6 points allowed a game).
“We’re just enjoying the process,’’ Johnson said on Tuesday. “We’re getting the W. It’s fun winning. We’ve always got the same approach. We’re going to play pissed off regardless if we’re doubted or we’re the favorite. That’s how we play. That’s our standard. That’s how we compete.’’
The night before the Virginia Tech game on November 4, Johnson gathered his players at the team hotel and gave a fiery talk, the gist of which was, “What are we waiting for? Let’s go dominate these people. Let’s go take the will from them.’’
The Walter Camp Player of the Year is voted on by the 130 Football Bowl Subdivision head coaches and sports information directors. A list of five finalists will be released on Wednesday, November 29, and the winner will be announced on Thursday, December 7.
The 15-player watch list includes six quarterbacks, five running backs and four defensive players. Fifteen different schools and eight conferences are represented on the list.
The 2016 Walter Camp Player of the Year, Louisville junior quarterback Lamar Jackson, is a 2017 semifinalist. Jackson has totaled 36 touchdowns (21 passing, 15 rushing) and 4,879 yards of total offense for the Cardinals in 2017.
"It's been another exciting college football season with many teams and players still in the hunt for national recognition," Foundation president Michael Madera said. "We've identified some outstanding players and we know the final weeks of the regular season should be even more thrilling."
Top-ranked Alabama defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick, a 2016 Walter Camp Second Team All-American, is also a 2017 Player of the Year semifinalist. Fitzpatrick has 44 tackles and one interception.