Though there was more playing time available because teammates at his position dealt with injuries, rookie New Orleans Saints linebacker Rufus Johnson turned in nondescript outings in his first two preseason games.
He didn’t post any of the sacks the Saints recorded in wins against Kansas City and Oakland, and he didn’t make a tackle.
Johnson’s lack of statistics doesn’t mean he’s doing a poor job for the Saints, for whom he is suiting up at linebacker after playing defensive end in college. But he hopes to strengthen his odds of landing on the team’s active roster by making some plays around the ball the rest of this preseason, and Sunday’s showdown with the Houston Texans represents his next chance to begin doing that.
“I’ve been a little quiet so far,” Johnson said Tuesday. “This game is going to be a huge opportunity. I’m ready to come out explosive and play hard.”
Johnson, 23, was an all-district player at Spruce High in Dallas and attracted recruiting attention from universities such as Mississippi State and Baylor.
But he was a nonqualifier and enrolled at Kilgore Junior College in Texas.
He later transferred to Tarleton State, where he had 15.5 sacks on 96 combined tackles in two seasons as a defensive end. He won second-team Division II All-America honors, was his conference’s defensive lineman of the year, and ran the 40-yard dash in 4.69 seconds before being drafted, prompting the Saints to believe he could mature into a productive pass rusher at outside linebacker.
Johnson headed into the summer under Victor Butler, Will Smith, Junior Galette and Martez Wilson on the depth chart at outside linebacker.
Then Butler tore an anterior cruciate ligament during organized team activities in June, and both Wilson and Galette have missed practices and the two preseason games with injuries they suffered in training camp.
Those injuries haven’t resulted in increased work for Johnson, however.
After Butler, Galette and Wilson were hurt, Johnson saw fewer preseason game snaps than did teammates Jay Richardson and Baraka Atkins, who have been rotating between linebacker and defensive end depending on whether the Saints are using a three-man or four-man front.
Richardson recovered a fumble in the 17-13 win against Kansas City on Aug. 9, and Atkins had a sack in that game.
Johnson did get more preseason snaps than undrafted rookie outside linebacker Chase Thomas, who was among several players cut from the Saints on Monday.
Johnson acknowledged he’s still growing accustomed to the speed at which pro football is played. He’s been making that adjustment while mourning the death of his father, former Texas Tech football player Rufus Johnson Sr.
Rufus Johnson Sr., who had been undergoing kidney dialysis, was with his son on the day he was drafted. The first time he addressed the media after being chosen by the Saints, the younger Johnson recalled that his dad smiled at him and said, “It’s time to go to work.”
Rufus Johnson Jr. has since found that he needs to improve on keeping his towering frame lower while attacking the line of scrimmage so he won’t be knocked back as easily. He’s learned he can’t get away with not lining up at the right spots the way he could occasionally at Tarleton State.
“You’ve got to know your assignment at all times because one person can mess up the other 10 people on the team,” Johnson said. “That’s a huge difference” between playing at a small school and in the NFL.
Nonetheless, Johnson said he’s enjoyed switching positions, especially because he’s been dropping back in pass coverage more often than he would at end.
“I like the versatility,” Johnson said. “In this league, you have to be versatile, you can’t just be a one-dimensional player.”
He is also confident that he possesses the physical tools he needs to leave his mark with the Saints.
“A lot of guys my size can’t make plays down the field and run people down, run a running back down, so just having that blessing on me has really helped me out,” he said.
Coach Sean Payton said Johnson’s potential isn’t lost on him.
“Each day he’s become better,” Payton said. “I’m anxious to see these next ... preseason games and see how he does.”
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