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Johnson, Louisiana's steely nickel, gives Ragin' Cajuns versatility in the secondary

Louisiana nickel back Ja'Len Johnson, shown making a tackle against Texas Southern during their 2019 game, has been starting for the Ragin' Cajuns since last season. "That dude is a big part of the defense," Louisiana cornerback Mekhi Garner said.

LAFAYETTE, La. — People have often struggled with Louisiana football player Ja’Len Johnson's name. Some spell his first name incorrectly, forgetting the apostrophe or not knowing the “L” is capitalized.

Johnson has grown accustomed to it.

“I don’t even correct people anymore,” he said.

Whatever he’s called, Johnson is appreciated.

“That dude is a big part of the defense,” Louisiana cornerback Mekhi Garner said. “He may not make every play, but he plays smart, you know what I mean? He does his one job.”

Precisely what that means is even confusing for his friends and family.

The Ragin’ Cajuns call it “Star,” code for nickel back.

“I tell them the nickel,” Johnson said, “and I try to explain that it’s kind of like an outside linebacker or safety position.”

Understanding all its inherent responsibilities isn’t easy, even for Johnson.

“It did take me a little while to get comfortable with it, because in high school I (played) corner,” said Johnson, a product of Central Catholic in Morgan City. “Now I moved closer to the line, and everything’s happening right in my face.”

A fifth-year junior, Johnson inherited the position from Terik Miller.

He began starting in 2020, when he opened nine of 11 games and had 34 tackles, including five games with at least four stops.

Size is the main reason Johnson, listed at 6-foot-2 and 208 pounds, is well-suited for the position.

“I’m a bigger person than most of our safeties in the room,” he said. “I’m the biggest safety we have. I think it kind of fits me. I can kind of maneuver. I fit in well with tight ends.”

Recruited as a cornerback, Johnson began as a special teams player and built trust with coaches.

“He’s a big, physical presence, but he’s extremely athletic. … He’s almost got a linebacker build,” said defensive coordinator Patrick Toney, suggesting Johnson weighs about 215. “But he can go out there and cover slot receivers. He can play the deep part of the field if you ask him to do that.

“So he’s extremely versatile. Then … he can knock the runner back. He can play physical in the box. ... I haven’t coached too many guys like that, who have that wide of a skill set. Which is awesome.”

Johnson stood out during a four-tackle outing in a mid-November win over South Alabama last season. “It was a game where his skill set really applied defensively,” head coach Billy Napier said.

“He’s a big safety that can do a lot of different things," Napier continued. "He’s a good tackler, plays the blocks on the perimeter well. He can cover. He’s a good apex player and a good blitzer.

“... He has good speed. He’s a smart, conscientious young man too and a guy that’s only going to get better.” the coach added. “He’s got versatility as well. He’s a guy in the future who could play dime (too). So we’re very pleased.”

Napier is also high on another nickel, former Alabama transfer Brandon Bishop. He came to Louisiana in 2019, appearing in 11 games, mostly on special teams. The former walk-on won a scholarship and appeared headed for a big role last year but broke his leg and missed the season.

“He was one of the best players on our team (before getting hurt),” Napier said. “He’s been on a long road to recovery, but he’s back and certainly will be a factor there.”

Bishop and Johnson provide Cajuns coaches ample confidence at the position as they prepare No. 23 Louisiana for Saturday’s season opener at Texas.

“The Star position is (an) area where we have a lot of depth,” Toney said.