University of Miami

Picks, turnover chains and fame — honors piling up for this UM safety

Miami Hurricanes safety Jaquan Johnson returns an interception for a third-quarter touchdown against Virginia at Hard Rock Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 18, 2017.
Miami Hurricanes safety Jaquan Johnson returns an interception for a third-quarter touchdown against Virginia at Hard Rock Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 18, 2017. adiaz@miamiherald.com

Jaquan Johnson doesn’t necessarily look intimidating.

But he plays like a monster.

Johnson, UM’s 5-11, 190-pound, hard-hitting junior safety out of Miami Killian High, was honored as the Atlantic Coast Conference Defensive Back of the Week on Monday for the third week in a row.

“He just makes plays every game,” UM coach Mark Richt said of Johnson on Monday during his weekly slot on WQAM, before the ACC announcement. “There are certain games where if something breaks down, he’s there. Not only is he there, he’s making a sure tackle. I can’t think of a safety playing better than him in the run game, when it comes to interceptions, when it comes to just leading a team by example and being so highly productive.

“The guy to me is All-ACC and really I think he should be an All-American candidate.”

Senior defensive end Trent Harris, who had a crucial, fourth-down sack late in the fourth quarter to help preserve UM’s victory against Virginia, is also having a great season and shared the ACC Defensive Lineman of the Week honor with Joshua Kaindoh of Florida State.

Harris had his third two-sack performance Saturday, raising his team-high sack total to eight. He had 6  1/2 sacks his first three seasons at Miami.

Harris has 29 tackles and an eye-popping 10 tackles for loss, with four quarterback hurries.

When UM (10-0, 7-0 ACC), No. 3 in the College Football Playoff rankings, faces Pittsburgh (4-7, 2-5) at noon Friday (ABC) in the regular-season finale at Pitt, both players will be integral.

Miami Hurricanes defensive back Trajan Bandy and Jaquan Johnson speak to the media about turnovers after the University of Miami Hurricanes host Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Hard Rock Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 11, 2017.

As for Johnson, described by UM defensive coordinator Manny Diaz as “the heart and soul” of UM’s secondary, he had a game-high nine tackles, one sack and the play that helped spark a 30-point, second-half comeback against Virginia: a 30-yard interception returned for a touchdown to make it 28-28 with 9:57 left in the third quarter.

Johnson leads UM with 75 tackles and four interceptions, and has worn the coveted turnover chain five times this season.

Johnson also has three tackles for loss, a sack, four pass breakups, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.

Last week he was named a semifinalist — one of only four defensive players — for Walter Camp Player of the Year.

When asked after the Virginia game why he repeatedly is able to make big plays, Johnson said, “The guys believing in me, me believing in myself, the coaching staff believing in me and me just being able to answer the phone when my number is called.

“Everybody works hard in practice. We’ve been working since the spring, so nothing’s changed in that aspect except games are on Saturdays so everybody can see it.”

Miami Hurricanes head coach Mark Richt speaks to the media after the University of Miami Hurricanes defeated the Virginia Cavaliers at Hard Rock Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 18, 2017.

Though Johnson was left off the 13-player Thorpe Award semifinalist list — the award goes to the top defensive back in the nation — he was called out in a good way earlier this month by Associated Press national college football writer Ralph D. Russo.

“Johnson has been a key cog in Miami’s return to late-season national relevance,” Russo wrote Nov. 7 in his “AP All-America Watch” report on “Whos hot?”

Said Russo of Johnson: “The team’s leading tackler got to wear the turnover chain twice against Virginia Tech on Saturday with a one-handed interception and forced fumble.”

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