The way Texas linebacker Derrick Johnson flies around the field, making plays, it would be easy to believe that the Longhorns had two No. 11s playing defense.
But Johnson is just that good, and that's why this year he won college football's Nagurski Award as the nation's top defensive player and the Butkus Award as the top linebacker. "Any time a team has a linebacker that's been selected the best linebacker in college football, you're going to have a problem," said Michigan Coach Lloyd Carr, whose Wolverines will try to control Johnson in the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day. "They use him extremely well. They use his athleticism and put him in position where he can be freed up to run to the football. He can make plays sideline to sideline. He's a great pass defender because of his athletic ability. He's just a tough player.
"If Dick Butkus caused problems back in the '50s and '60s, this guy Johnson has caused the same type of problems."
Expected to be a first-round pick in the NFL draft in April, Johnson said that he enjoyed making the rounds on the awards circuit after the regular season and that his favorite moment was meeting Butkus, the Hall of Fame linebacker for Illinois and the Chicago Bears.
"He's my idol," Johnson said. "He's the best linebacker to ever play the game of football. For me to get a chance to meet him was remarkable."
Honoring football greats is nothing new to Johnson. In his final home game at Darrell K. Royal Stadium, he wore No. 60 in tribute to former Texas All-American linebackers Johnny Treadwell and Tommy Nobis.
"Football is something that has been a positive for me," said Johnson, who led the Longhorns during the season with 128 tackles, including 19 for losses, and forced an NCAA-record-tying eight fumbles.
"Because of my background, a lot of people hold me up to a higher standard."
As the main man in Texas' attacking defense, Johnson helped the Longhorns limit opponents to 317.2 yards and 16.2 points a game.
"I really like the defense we have because it's very aggressive, very violent," said Johnson, who has made 456 tackles in his college career, including 65 for losses, a school record. "As a whole defense, we're going to the ball, finishing every play."
Johnson comes from a family of athletes. His mother ran track at Prairie View A&M, and his father was a high school football standout in Texas. His older brother, Dwight Johnson, was a defensive lineman for Baylor from 1995 to '99 and had a couple of short stints in the NFL.
Johnson's cousins include UCLA safety Bert Emanuel II, and Oklahoma defensive end John Williams, along with former Rice quarterback and eight-year NFL receiver Bert Emanuel and Florida State defensive lineman Kevin Emanuel. Another cousin, Robert Johnson, played basketball at Rice, leading the team in scoring in 1998-99.
Johnson is known for making big plays at key moments. And sometimes, even the plays he has failed to make have inspired.
That was the case in the Longhorns' remarkable comeback against Oklahoma State on Nov. 6. Johnson finished with a career-high 18 tackles, 14 solo. But his pursuit of the Cowboys' Vernand Morency on a scoring play caught the attention of his coaches and teammates.
On a 68-yard catch and run in the first half, Morency, a former sprinter who rushed for 261 yards against UCLA in the first game of the season, broke several tackles and took off. He had an open field to the end zone, but Johnson never gave up on the play.
Johnson made up nearly 10 yards and caught Morency just as the running back made it into the end zone.
"There's nothing like having someone like Derrick on your side," senior safety Phillip Geiggar said. "You got teams fearing him, and when you have somebody like that on your team, it makes everybody want to play. Him being out on the field makes us that more comfortable.
"In that Oklahoma State game, the play he made was big. Just the intent and the work ethic that he showed to run down Morency on that long run. That just boosted everybody."
It's the type of effort the Longhorns expect to see plenty of against the Wolverines on Saturday.