By Craig Haley, FCS Executive Director
Sixth of an eight-part series featuring the best Football Championship Subdivision players at various positions.
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - The accolades and awards will be there for Montana cornerback Trumaine Johnson this year. An NFL career awaits him next year.
But the success of the team matters most on the tradition-rich University of Montana football program. After the Grizzlies' FCS-record 17-year run of national playoff appearances ended last season, that has been even more of a rallying cry this offseason.
And "Tru," as Johnson often goes by, has his significant individual achievements on the backburner.
"Going to the national championship (game) my freshman and sophomore years, I'm on top of cloud nine," he remembered about Montana's superb 2008 and '09 squads. "My junior campaign, not even to make the playoffs, that was heartbreaking. That hurt the most. Me and my teammates are starving, trying to get back to the top."
Johnson is there in one aspect. Ranked at the top of the Top 10 FCS Defensive Backs, he might be the first FCS defensive player selected in the 2012 NFL Draft.
Last year's Sports Network/Fathead.com FCS All-America first-team selection has an athletic body at 6-foot-3, 197 pounds, and is physical at the point of attack and catlike in his ability to pounce in coverage. His tall build doesn't allow him to move his hips or feet like a shorter cornerback, but Johnson is instinctive. The fourth-year starter has 13 career interceptions.
"I like to get my hands on a receiver, just own 'em. That might sound funny, but I like going out there with the mindset that you're not going to catch a ball on me. Just own 'em the whole game."
Johnson totaled 44 tackles and had four interceptions and seven other pass breakups for 11 passes defended last year. He returned two of his picks for touchdowns, showcasing his 4.48-second speed in the 40-yard dash.
He's looking forward to Montana's season opener at Tennessee on Sept. 3 - the Grizzlies' first game against an FBS school in five years. NFL scouts will get a better look at why Johnson could be a mid-round draft choice next year.
But he's also looking forward to the Big Sky Conference race and beyond. He wants to erase the image that has flashed through his head since last November.
The Grizzlies' 2010 season ended with rival Montana State finishing off a win and keeping them from returning to the playoffs.
"This is my last year and I'm a senior now. We all have the same goals in mind," Johnson said.
Here are nine more defensive backs who are part of The Sports Network's FCS Preseason Top 10:
Tylor Brock, Southeast Missouri State, S, Jr., 6-3, 195 - A versatile style helps the athletic Brock stand out. He is a smooth player who changes directions well and makes plays. He tied SEMO's single-season record with six interceptions, while breaking up another three passes last season. Brock also was in on 56 tackles. Coaches love his intangibles.
Moses Ellis, Prairie View A&M, CB, Sr., 5-9, 175 - Ellis led the FCS with eight interceptions and 22 passes defended last season. He combines speed with great ball skills. He anticipates plays well with his strong football IQ. Ellis, who earned All-SWAC first-team honors, was in on 41 tackles, including 28 solos, with two fumble recoveries and one forced fumble.
Matt Johnson, Eastern Washington, S, Sr., 6-2, 220 - With 15 career interceptions, Johnson will threaten the school record of 18. He's entering his fourth season as a starter, having earned All-Big Sky first-team and The Sports Network/Fathead.com FCS All-America third-team honors for the FCS champion Eagles last season. In 15 games, he totaled 105 tackles with five interceptions and eight other pass breakups, adding two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery. He is a physical presence who is instinctive.
Mike McElroy, Southern Illinois, S, Sr., 6-1, 210- After earning preseason All-America honors last season, McElroy missed most of the campaign because of an ankle injury. The quarterback of the Salukis' defense had intercepted seven passes and made 78 tackles as a junior in 2009. He has both an intelligent and physical style. The Salukis are counting on him to come back strong as they try to rebound from a tremendously disappointing season.
Josh Norman, Coastal Carolina, CB, Sr., 6-2, 190 - Norman is a dominating force in the Big South and was second in the FCS with eight interceptions as a sophomore in 2009. Last season, he had only one interception, but broke up nine other passes, while also collecting 56 tackles, a forced fumble and one blocked kick. He has good size and closing speed. He's been an all-conference first-team selection in each of the past two seasons.
Laron Scott, Georgia Southern, CB, Jr., 5-9, 175 - Blessed with outstanding speed, Scott is a ball hawk. He intercepted six passes and broke up 10 more last season when the Eagles reached the FCS semifinals. He was in on 44 tackles, including three for loss. Scott, who ran a 4.27-second 40-yard dash during his one season at Butler County College in Kansas, used his speed to average 26.4 yards on 44 kickoff returns a year ago.
Ryan Steed, Furman, CB, Sr., 5-11, 186 - Nothing bodes better for Steed than the fact he played well against the much-bigger Alshon Jeffery of South Carolina last season. Steed anticipates the ball well and then gets to it. He is a playmaker, having returned four interceptions for 120 yards and a touchdown and one fumble for an 89-yard score. He also broke up nine passes to give him 13 passes defended, and forced three fumbles.
B.W. Webb, William & Mary, CB, Jr., 5-11, 175 - The 2009 CAA Defensive Rookie of the Year took the next step in his progression by becoming an all- conference first-team player last season. Webb is a fast cornerback who quarterbacks exceedingly throw away from after he picked off eight passes as a freshman. He finished last season with 42 tackles, one interception and six pass breakups. He was second in the CAA in punt return average (9.8).
Defensive backs on the cusp: Jose Gumbs, Monmouth, S, Sr., 5-10, 210; Alex Sewall, Indiana State, S, Sr., 6-1, 210; Kejuan Riley, Alabama State, Jr., FS, 6-2, 182; Cooper Taylor, Richmond, S, Jr., 6-5, 220