CONWAY — Dontavais Johnson is known around the Coastal Carolina football program as a rather quiet, humble guy. So quiet and humble actually that for the last two years, since he arrived as a transfer from Hofstra, his first name had been misspelled on the team’s official roster and he never bothered to tell anybody.
But heading into his senior season, he decided it was time to get that fixed ... and time to take care of some other unfinished business as well.
“Me being laid back, I seen that and I was like, ‘Oh, they spelled my name wrong. Forget it.’ I didn’t really care,” Johnson said of the roster error. “... [But] then I finally said, ‘My name’s wrong.’ Because if I want to make the statement this year [the way] I thought I was going to have things turn out, I was like, ‘Everything’s got to be right.’”
The way he thought things would turn out has not exactly been the way his collegiate career has unfolded to this point.
First, Hofstra ended its football program after the 2009 season, leaving Johnson and the rest of his teammates as football refugees of sorts. The 5-foot-10 cornerback then found a new home at Coastal Carolina, but he couldn’t find a steady role with the Chanticleers while battling injuries as a sophomore and tallying just 13 total tackles and two pass break-ups last year while shuffling around the depth chart.
“I always felt I [could] start when I first got here,” he said. “I always had that confidence. I always had that, but things don’t go as you plan things to go.”
No, but for that matter, not even Johnson could have planned what happened Saturday.
The fifth-year senior had his long-awaited breakout performance while recording the first three interceptions of his career in Coastal’s 29-13 season-opening win over North Carolina A&T. He also added a clutch pass break-up in the end zone when the game was still close in the first half, and the honors have been pouring in since as Johnson was named not only the Big South Defensive Player of the Week but also the National FCS Defensive Player of the Week by The Sports Network.
Not that he’s gotten caught up in such things.
“That was a big night for him, there’s no question,” CCU defensive coordinator Clayton Carlin said. “... But he was very steady, and he’s very even-keeled. By the time he woke up the next morning, he was on to the next game – I can promise you that.”
It didn’t even take until the next morning, Johnson said.
“I feel like this is my time, and I’m not going to let back,” Johnson said this week. “I’m going to continue to work hard every day. After that first game, I told myself that night, I’m going to come to practice Tuesday and the next day and just work harder, try to fix everything I need to fix so I can become perfect.”
Johnson has never been short on motivation.
He describes being raised in Palm Beach County, Fla., with five siblings by a single mother. He says his older brother is incarcerated now, facing 15-20 years in prison unless the family can find a way to afford a good lawyer to get the sentence reduced. And there’s a lot of people back home watching to see what Johnson does with his opportunity at Coastal.
“I feel like I’m a big role model in my family,” he said. “I’m the first one to graduate high school. I’m going to be the first one to graduate college. And I have a big family. There’s just a lot of people looking up towards me, and I feel I can’t let nobody down. Not [even] let anybody down – not let myself down because I take pride in what I’m doing.”
With standout Josh Norman gone to the NFL this year, there were some natural questions as to how the Chants would fill the void at cornerback. Neither Johnson nor Tre Henderson were able to distinguish themselves much last year while splitting the starts at the other corner position, but the new coaching staff came in and told everybody they had a fresh slate.
Johnson recalls the new coaches saying that they hadn’t even watched much film from last year and were going to make their lineup determinations based on who made the best impression this spring and summer, and so he saw that as his opportunity to re-establish himself.
As head coach Joe Moglia said, “Tae is one of those guys who has really earned that job over the span of the last 45 practices or so.”
Both Johnson and Henderson are being counted on now to solidify Coastal’s secondary and through one week at least, so far, so good. North Carolina A&T was held to 155 passing yards last Saturday while being undone by the turnovers. Johnson’s first pick came in the first quarter on a short panic pass as Aggies freshman quarterback Kwashaun Quick was under duress. The second came not long thereafter on an overthrow as Johnson made a diving grab. The third would come late in the fourth quarter, but he would also add to his highlight-reel of a first half with a key pass break-up in the end zone late in the second quarter as the visitors attempted a third-down fade pass before having to settle for a field goal.
“He did his job,” Carlin said. “What he did was he trusted his technique and he executed his technique.”
After not having an interception on his resume entering the night, Johnson went into halftime well on his way to tying Josh and Marrio Norman’s program record with three picks in one game.
“I wanted to get back on the field right away and just make more plays because it’s a great feeling,” Johnson said of his thoughts at halftime. “Just like this next game, I want to go out there and show the world I can do the same thing as last game.”
This week, it’s Furman. The Paladins have a senior quarterback in Conway High School product Dakota Derrick, and after his performance last week, Johnson has probably earned some extra attention from the opposing coaching staff this time.
But nothing has changed, as far as he’s concerned.
“I’m laid back. I don’t like a lot of attention,” Johnson said. “... I just like to stay humble and continue to work hard because that’s [how] I lived always growing up. Nothing was ever given to me. I was raised up by a single mom. I always worked hard. They always told me, ‘Work hard and hard work pays off, and keep God first and my time will come.’ And I feel like it’s my time.”
Contact RYAN YOUNG at 626-0318.