Entering his senior year, C.J. Johnson's transition from defensive end to linebacker was a little unexpected, but it certainly makes sense. Johnson was recruited as a five-star linebacker out of high school. He had the size to play the position , but as a freshman it became obvious he would be a bigger asset at defensive end. The Rebels needed a pass rusher, and Johnson was that. Through three years, Johnson showed himself to be formidable at getting to the quarterback, though he wasn't elite at that.
Last season, Marquis Haynes emerged as a freshman All-American with seven sacks. On the other side of the ball, Fadol Brown led all defensive linemen in tackles and provided a run stuffing element that Haynes lacked. Johnson, Haynes, Brown, and even Channing Ward worked well together as a defensive end rotation. Then the team's top three linebackers graduated. The coaches had a wealth of ends and not many linebackers. They had to move Johnson.
Whenever you're talking about a defensive lineman making the move to linebacker, there will be concerns about his coverage abilities. While said concerns were not necessarily alleviated versus Fresno State (because how could they?), Johnson did have a pick. It was a really great play too.
Here's the play in its entirety.
Let's break this down with a few stills to better understand what's going on with this play.
It's not vital that you know who everyone is. Just know that CJ Johnson is the linebacker standing in the middle who isn't pointing. Denzel Nkemdiche is the linebacker who is approaching the line of scrimmage at the top of the screen. He will be important to this play.
Once the ball is snapped, the receiver at the top of the screen runs a very quick hook. He is very open, since the defense is running a cover three and is not focused on defending short passes. If Chason Virgil saw him, he could have picked up a significant gain. However, Denzel Nkemdiche has blitzed around that edge and pressured Virgil. Having clogged the passing lane, he has essentially taken that throw away without even "covering" that receiver.
But that doesn't even matter. Virgil's pre-snap read is to pass to his tight end, who he thinks will be uncovered. The tight end is running a quick slant, probably because the defense isn't giving the offense much time to run anything that isn't quick. For a moment, the tight end even looks like he isn't being covered.
But this is where everything falls apart. CJ Johnson is baiting Chason Virgil. He wants him to throw the ball there so badly. As soon as Virgil begins his throwing motion, Johnson darts to his left, and this happens.
Johnson jumped the route and made an easy pick that he took 70 yards before being tackled. Because the line got so much pressure all night, Fresno was trying to get the ball out as quickly as possible. This one got away from them, and Johnson displayed good athleticism to make it cost the Bulldogs.