Johnson makes most of opportunity at NMSU

By Patrick Klein

Arizona Daily Wildcat

If the New Mexico State football team had been able to stop teams last year, Bernie Johnson might be somewhere else right now.

But the Aggies surrendered 432.8 yards a game last year and lost all but three starters on defense, which provided ample room for new talent to step into starting roles this season.

Enter Johnson, a 6-foot-3, 265-pound defensive lineman. Having finished his two-year stint at Saddleback College (a junior college in Mission Viejo, Calif.), where he was named one of the top 100 junior college players in the country last year by JC Grid Wire, he was looking for a Division I school that would allow him to immediately compete for a starting job.

Enter New Mexico State.

"I really didn't want to go to a Big West school," said Johnson, who was also recruited by Northwestern, Memphis State, and Miami (Ohio). "I told my coaches that New Mexico State was the only one I wanted there. I talked to Beau (former Saddleback teammate and Aggie linebacker Beau Le Breton) and he told me a lot of good stuff. I knew I could start there right away."

New Mexico State coach Jim Hess knew a good thing when he saw one, leaving the Big West's annual Las Vegas Bowl activities last December to visit Johnson in California and implore him to come to Las Cruces. That visit left an impression on the lineman.

"Coach Hess made me feel important," Johnson said. "He left the Las Vegas Bowl and came to my apartment in California. After I signed he came up to Washington to meet my parents.

"He's a real trusting coach, you don't want to let him down."

So far, Johnson has lived up to all the expectations the Aggies had for him. He claimed the starting job in spring practice and impressed coaches with his work ethic.

"He's done a remarkable job," said defensive line coach Jay Brown. "You tell him to do something, he'll do whatever he can to get it done. Other guys saw him play and work and they built off of it."

The Aggies' switch this year to a 4-3 defensive scheme (four down linemen and three linebackers) from a 3-4 last year was precipitated by the signing of Johnson and several other junior college players, and the alignment puts a premium on an experienced defensive leader like Johnson.

"With only two linebackers and one defensive back returning on defense, I'm trying to be the leader of the defensive line," Johnson said. "While I'm new to the team, I've basically always played in a 4-3.

"That puts a little pressure on you. My JC coaches put a lot of responsibility on me I was in charge of formation calls."

His experience has also caught the eye of the defensive coaching staff.

"The scheme we use, we try to do a lot of moving of guys on the front," Brown said. "They can't be like trained seals, they have to be able to listen to the linebackers and move around. Johnson pretty much controls what we do there."

Johnson first learned his trade at Curtis High School in Tacoma, Wash., then at the University of Idaho. He left after a year there, citing a desire to play Divison I-A football, and played for Saddleback.

"(Saddleback) was great, the coaches were good," Johnson said about the school that he helped to an 11-0 record and the 1992 junior college national championship. "Junior college made me play, it opened up my game. In high school I played both ways, so I had to conserve my energy. Junior college taught me to go after the ball and my intensity went up."

Intensity is a key to being a successful defensive lineman, Johnson said.

"You've got to attack, try to get into the backfield at all costs. You must be relentless. You're not going to get big tackle stats, but if you do a good job, it will show."

Being the top guy in a line filled with other junior college transfers and underclassmen, Johnson sees his role on the team stretching off the field as well.

Said Johnson: "I try to keep people focused and to set an example. I get into the weight room as much as possible so younger guys have a good example to follow."

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