By Fred J. Robledo, Staff Writer
There’s a time to smile, laugh and crack jokes, but knowing when and where has been a growing process for Bishop Amat two-way standout Darien Johnson. No longer just a role-playing corner, Johnson has become the Lancers’ sudden-impact performer. He’s already returned a kick and punt for touchdowns, has an interception, and also has seven receptions for 142 yards and a touchdown.
Lancers coach Steve Hagerty isn’t a big fan of players having so many roles, but he believes that Johnson has matured enough to handle it.
“He’s always wanted to be that guy, but sometimes I don’t think he quite understood what it took to be that guy,” Hagerty said. “He now has a cleaner picture of what that guy has to be for us.”
It was easier for Johnson to have a laid-back attitude last year, when they had defensive stalwarts such as Sheldon Price, Isaiah Bowens and Brent Seals, who all graduated.
But he also learned from them.
“They were leaders,” Johnson said. “With them gone, I knew I had to step up; whether that means firing up guys or making plays on the field, I had to take on that responsibility.”
It’s one thing to say it, though; Hagerty needed to see it.
“He’s grown up,” Hagerty said. “Darien is like a magnet around campus; people like him. They like to be around him. He’s fun to talk to and he’s always smiling, but sometimes in the past that would get in the way of the things he needed to do in order to be a focused football player.
“He still jokes, but he knows when it’s time to work and get down to business, which is the biggest difference between him last year and this year.”
It also helps when there’s a Bishop Amat coach and alumni hall of famer like Daylon McCutcheon reminding Johnson that he can’t take a play off, even in practice.
McCutcheon also played for USC and in the NFL.
“Last year he would have a great game and then a so-so game,” McCutcheon said. “I told him, `You can’t be up and down, not with what we expect from you, and not with the schedule we have.’
“So far he’s handled the pressure well. He’s done everything we have asked him to do, but our season is just beginning. There are no cupcakes on it, and him being a pivotal player, he needs to keep making big plays for us.
“If you want to be one of the better players that has been at Amat, and if you want to be one of those All-CIF guys, you have to take on that challenge. I think he has all the talent in the world, but you have to go out there and get it.”
Those words certainly resonate with Johnson.
“I use him (McCutcheon) like a sponge,” Johnson said. “Whatever he says, I try to absorb it.
“He’s done everything at the high school, college and pro level. When he talks, you have to listen and respect what he says.”
That includes taking criticism, which wasn’t always easy for the 5-foot-9, 175-pound Johnson to hear.
“The best thing Daylon does is keep him (Johnson) grounded,” Hagerty said. “He reminds him of the hard work it’s going to take. When Daylon leaned on Darien last year, he might have pouted. This year he realizes that it’s for his own good, that he needs to get it going because there is no looking back.”
The first huge challenge rolls into town on Friday when the Lancers (3-0) host two-time defending CIF-SS Division III state champion St. Bonaventure (4-0), which has won seven CIF-SS titles since 1999.
St. Bonaventure is No. 1 in the Northern Division and highly ranked in several Southland polls, which gives the Lancers a perfect opportunity to make believers of themselves.
Guess who’s leading the vocal charge?
“You don’t get a lot of opportunities to knock off two-time defending state champions,” Johnson said.
“Last year nobody thought we could knock off Orange Lutheran, and we did (47-39). We’re using that as a steppingstone of what can happen this year.
“We know (St.) Bonaventure is going to come in here thinking they’re going to whip us. We can’t let that happen. We have to believe we can beat anybody, and if we all do our assignments, there’s no reason why we can’t.”
Taking on that responsibility is what McCutcheon wanted to hear from his senior.
“For us to be able to pull out a victory, your big-time players have to step up,” McCutcheon said. “He understands that now. As far as the future, skies the limit.
“Physically and athletically, he has all the talent in the world,” McCutcheon said. “There are things he can do in the open field that you would pay money to see.”
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