Editors Note: The article you are about to read will introduce you to Trumaine Johnson. It will also introduce you to a talented young Journalism Major, currently attending the University of Montana. Deven Pfister is a Rams fan - and fellow TSTer - who I badgered into writing a few articles for us. I hope you enjoy his article! - DouglasM
On April 27th, during the third round of the 2012 NFL draft, the St. Louis Rams
drafted cornerback Trumaine Johnson with the 65th
overall pick. The University of Montana standout became one more cog in a magical draft for Rams fans. Not only were GM Les Snead and Head Coach Jeff Fisher ecstatic about the pick, but many fans were as well. Viewed as a draft full of bold picks by the Rams, this pick proved now that the Rams were going to fill their roster with talented players, even if they were considered risks.
Coming from Stockton, California, Johnson was a highly touted recruit for colleges like Arizona State and Cal. This was not only due to his athleticism but the fact that he was a multi-purpose weapon, having played wide-receiver, quarterback and strong safety at Thomas Edison High. Johnson had not only excelled in football, but track and basketball as well. He would eventually choose a smaller school in the University of Montana due to then Head Coach Bobby Hauck’s persistence to get Johnson’s dynamic playmaking ability to Grizzly Stadium. As Trumaine entered his collegiate career at Montana, he started as a wide-receiver, most likely due to his lanky build having an advantage in the Big Sky conference. As fall practices rolled around, coaches saw him as a better fit at cornerback, where he would start 11 games his freshman year, picking off four passes.
I had the joy of watching Trumaine play last year at University of Montana. Johnson’s greatest attribute is his size. At 6’2", 204 pounds, Johnson already brings to the NFL the prototypical NFL corner size and strength (19 bench press reps at the combine). With 33 ¼ inch arm span, he makes a commanding presence when he walks onto a field and has no trouble fitting himself in front of receivers to break up passes. He has the unique skill set to be able to play multiple coverage schemes. He’s strong enough to jam receivers at the line and quick enough to play press and man coverage. He also brings his instinctive play into zone schemes where he reacts quickly to receivers, as well as his ability to read routes. Trumaine also has quite a knack for playing the ball too, racking up 15 interceptions throughout his college career. While those aren’t eye popping numbers, schools realized Trumaine was playing like a shut-down corner soon after his sophomore year. Quarterbacks learned quickly from their mistakes and began throwing away from Johnson to other receivers on the field. Even though quarterbacks shied away him this season, he still made plays on the ball picking up 54 tackles. His collegiate career ended with him being targeted 305 times and allowed only 102 completions. That 33.44% completion percentage is one of the most telling statistics about Johnson.
After looking at NFL corners and the completion percentage against them; a solid NFL corner’s numbers tend to hover around about 50%. According to Walterfootball.com, top corner back free-agents like Lardarius Webb and Brandon Carr had completion percentages against them of 54.6% and 49.4% respectively. It’s doubtful he will be able to bring that sort of production to the NFL, but it’s always a good sign to see your rookie corner is beating NFL statistics. Trumaine was always known at Montana for his huge hits and seeming to be all over the field on every play. He showed the agility to continually fly to the ball during games and often would deliver hits that resounded through the entire stadium. He also shows receiver like body control when tracking balls in the air, something that will surely help him at the next level when tracking down bigger NFL receivers on jump balls. He made interceptions look like receptions by a receiver. Watching him turn to track the ball and elevate his body to go up and get balls with his hands left many a Grizzly fans’ jaws ajar.
This ability to catch with such ease is very rare in cornerbacks, since their job is usually just to get in the way of the receiver. While he may not be a home-run threat in the return game, his ability to return kicks will be a helpful addition to the Rams’ special teams. Trumaine’s speed comes from his long stride, so to harness this advantage, he’ll need to get some early separation or speedier NFL special teamers will be able to bring him down quickly. He has a knack for finding holes when returning kicks. He’s no Patrick Peterson, but he made a name for himself at Montana by taking kicks back for huge gains and even a few touchdowns.
While Trumaine may not possess top notch speed (4.48 40 yard dash), he has the quickness to stay on receivers, and has the ability to recover if he makes a mistake in coverage. Rarely did he let a receiver sneak by him for a long play. Johnson’s most glaring weakness will always be the lack of talented competition he played against in college. The Big Sky conference has never been known for big receivers with top notch speed or great hands. This caused many corners to be drafted ahead of him in April due to the fact they played more "elite" talent. He also needs to work on his ability to shed blocks on the outside. While he is a decent tackler in open space and against the run, he has a rough time shedding bigger linemen and tight-ends once he is engaged. His ability to light up receivers with big hits can often be seen as less of a blessing and more of a curse. While this is a wonderful asset to have, it was often caused some of Johnson’s biggest mistakes. When a player searches for that big hit he often misses easy wrap up tackles. This was very much the case because for every highlight reel tackle Trumaine made, he would often miss two easy tackles. Understandably, he wanted to be seen by pro scouts and the best way is making highlight reel plays. Now at the NFL level, he has no one he needs to impress. Hopefully, Jeff Fisher and Chuck Cecil can get Johnson to realize that a highlight reel tackle isn’t as important as getting his receiver on the ground.
His former Head Coach, Robin Pflugrad, should get much of the credit for the different ways Johnson was utilized while at the University of Montana. While his position on the depth chart was defined as a corner back, he often played in nickel packages, where he was used in the role of a pass rushing linebacker more than a nickel package corner. But it was not only nickel packages that Johnson was used to rush the quarterback. During many games, you can see him flying towards the quarterback on numerous occasions and usually tipping a pass or forcing the quarterback into a bad throw. He was also used as a free-safety, the position where many TSTers feel like he would fit better, but he just seemed sort of awkward covering open space. Johnson’s size and athleticism had him returning kicks, which can only help his standing with the Rams as a multipurpose player.
Many TSTers believe that Johnson was drafted to start at safety alongside Mikell. I agreed with many of you at first, but after watching Johnson more closely, it’s easy to tell the outside is more natural for him to play at this point in his career. Maybe, after a few seasons under his belt, Fisher may try and move him to safety, giving the Rams a big, mean presence covering the middle of the field. Right now, his skills are just too raw. He has yet to cover any elite wide receiver, and throwing him into a different position would be hazardous to not only the Rams, but to his progression as a player. He has the tools to become an excellent starter for the Rams where ever he is placed, but working him into a new position would be something best suited for later in his career.
Coming into the draft, experts had him rated somewhere between a late first-round, and early second-round prospect due to his aforementioned skills. After putting up a strong performance at the combine, it seemed like Johnson was a lock as a second-round pick. When draft time came around at the end of April, Trumaine sadly found his stock was falling. Bloggers and experts alike were gossiping about his "Character Issues". These "Character Issues" stem from a singular off the field issue which occurred on October 23rd of the 2011 season.
Trumaine was tased and arrested at a house party. According to police reports, Missoula police were called to the scene of a house party that had gotten too loud for neighbors. The house party was being hosted by players after Montana had come from behind to beat Northern Arizona University. When police arrived at the house, Gerald Kemp, a backup quarterback and receiver for the Griz, answered the door and supposedly got into a tussle with a police officer and was tased. Kemp, drunk and writhing in pain, called for Johnson. Having no idea what was going on, he entered the room and was ordered by police to get on the ground. When he refused, he was tased as well. So for Johnson to see his stock fall just for being in the wrong place, at the wrong time, seems ridiculous. Many players, like Jacksonville’s Justin Blackmon, have been charged with DUI’s. Some, like Rams’ corner Janoris Jenkins, have been kicked out of schools and have many other drug related charges to their names. Albeit, it is easy for a small school prospect’s value to drop with little incidents, but in reality, it’s an incident largely blown out of proportion.
While the University of Montana didn’t have much talent besides Trumaine, their roster is rarely devoid of players with skill. Montana’s mike-backer, Caleb McSurdy, became a 7th round pick this year by the Dallas Cowboys, and is a player who has an excellent future in the NFL as a backup linebacker or special teams standout. When looking at recent Montana players drafted into the NFL like defensive-end Kroy Biermann (ATL, 5th round) and wide-receiver Marc Mariani (TN, 7th round), it’s easy to see that both players have made an impact. For the past four years in Atlanta, Biermann has been a rotational defensive-end in the Falcons system, but seems to come up with a sack or a QB pressure whenever he’s on the field. Mariani made an immediate splash in the NFL, taking a kick and a punt back for a touchdown; averaging 25.5 yards a return in just his rookie season. While Montana players may seem to fly under the radar for most fans, it may be the desire to prove themselves to be just as good as the D1-A athletes that keeps them on NFL rosters.
Playing against less than elite wide-receivers may be the biggest knock on Johnson, he will get his share this upcoming season. Luckily, the uphill climb he faces this year will only enhance his career potential. His new mentor, Cortland Finnegan, also faced the same uphill battle as Trumaine, having come from a small school in Samford University. Cortland has always been seen as a player who plays with something to prove, and it has propelled Finnegan into being one of the top corners in the NFL.
With training and mentoring, I believe Trumaine has more than a legitimate chance of being a Rams’ starting corner opposite of Janoris Jenkins when the need arises (most likely after Finnegan’s playing days are over). For the time being, he works in as a good nickel package corner who can cover a slot receiver with a much bigger and stronger body and can even be called upon to rush the passer. I can also see Johnson getting looks at free-safety if Darian Stewart ends up not being Jeff Fisher’s solution for the Rams at the safety position. He has all the physical tools and intelligence to be a starting caliber corner; it just comes down to how hard he tries to prove himself in his first years in the NFL. When he does become NFL ready, the rest of the league and Rams fans alike will surely watch a star grow in front of our eyes.