Johnson wants to keep improving

January 19, 2004|LARRY VAUGHT

Dennis Johnson's second year in the National Football League was better than his rookie season in 2002, but not nearly as good as he eventually wants his play to be.

"I definitely need to get better with my pass rush," said Johnson. "Rushing the passer is the thing that will make you money in this league. I got better this year, but I need to get to the quarterback even more.

"Each year you have to get bigger, stronger and faster because there are always going to be people coming that want to take your job. You've got to improve to keep playing, and one thing I've got to improve is my pass rush."

The former Harrodsburg High School and University of Kentucky player had 42 total tackles for the Arizona Cardinals this year after making just 10 his first season. The defensive end had 27 unassisted tackles, three quarterback sacks and five pass deflections.


He played in 15 games - he missed one game because of illness and played only sparingly in the opener before working his way into the lineup and in the first game back after his illness.

"If I stay healthy and play a full 16 games, that should help my numbers and play, too," said Johnson, who now weighs 272 pounds. "The more you play, the more you learn."

Johnson, a third-round draft pick, was the USA Today national defensive player of the year his final season at Harrodsburg. He picked UK over Florida and Notre Dame and became one of the Southeastern Conference's top linemen before bypassing his senior season to enter the NFL draft.

"People have always talked about my potential and whether I was reaching it or not," Johnson said. "That motivated me, and still does.

"I want to be All-Pro. This year my contract is up. I've not stopped working out since the season was over. I'm lucky to be blessed with talent and my goal is to be the best player I can be until the day I stop playing."

He'll have a new coaching staff next season. Dennis Green recently was named Arizona's new coach, and Johnson is still waiting to find out who his position coach will be. However, he survived a coaching change at Kentucky when Hal Mumme left and Guy Morriss took over.

"You can't worry about the change because you can't control it," Johnson said. "I had my best year after the coaching change at Kentucky.

"The new coaches have not seen me. I just have to out and make plays. I am confident in myself after the year I just had. I think I am the best defensive lineman we have. But I still have to go out and prove myself again.

"For me, the NFL has not been that much different physically. But mentally it is a lot harder. You are supposed to be perfect. Veterans don't like you to make mistakes and mess up. Mentally, you've got to stay sharp because it is a business, not a game."

He had career-high eight tackles in season-ending win

He had a career-high eight tackles in Arizona's season-ending win over Minnesota. That included two stops against former UK running back Moe Williams.

"That was fun," Johnson said. "We did a lot of talking during the game, too. That game was one of my better ones. Against Cleveland I also played pretty good, and I had a good game against Pittsburgh, too."

Johnson stays in touch with former UK teammates and joked with Cleveland quarterback Tim Couch that Arizona would be a great place for him to play after he lost his starting job with the Browns this year.

"I told him that we needed him. Seriously, he's a great quarterback. Everybody in the league knows that. It's just time for a change for him. That's what he needs to get going again," Johnson said.

Johnson has enjoyed watching the NFL playoffs and certainly will be watching the Super Bowl Feb. 1. He only hopes the Cardinals will improve enough under Green to eventually reach the playoffs.

"I would love to get out there and find out what the playoffs are all about," Johnson said. "I would love to help a team get into the playoffs, just like I tried to get Kentucky into bowl games.

"Helping build something is the most gratifying thing you can do as a player. In this day of free agency, I certainly would not turn down the chance to play for a contender, but I would rather help get Arizona winning."

Johnson said he feels no added pressure going into the final year of his three-year contract.

"This is something where I can set myself up for a long time financially by having a big year," Johnson said. "I've just got to go out and make plays consistently. That's why I'm more anxious than nervous about this next season."

He's also grown to enjoy living in Phoenix, where the temperature was about 50 degrees warmer than when he returned to Kentucky last week.

"I'm probably out there about nine months a year now," Johnson said. "I know a lot more about the city. I've got acclimated to everything there and really love the people, and the warm weather.

"But I'm glad to be home now. I'm just going to relax, work out, hang out with my friends, spend a lot of time with my son and get some good home-cooking.

"I want to check out some Harrodsburg and UK basketball games, too. I like going to games, especially Harrodsburg games, where I can see people I have not seen for a while."

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