Seniors start final season in ISU secondary

Dan Tracy

A good first impression is critical for a college freshman.

When Arlington, Texas, native Ter’Ran Benton arrived on campus as the final signee of Gene Chizik’s 2008 recruiting class, no one talked to him. A self-proclaimed pretty boy with curly hair and wearing shirts that he admits were much too tight for his 185-pound frame, Benton didn’t fit in as the start of the fall semester drew closer.

Then he began talking with teammate Leonard Johnson, another out-of-state talent hailing from Clearwater, Fla. Johnson was the first player to sit down and talk with Benton, and the two conversed often as they learned how to live away from home.

Now seniors, the defensive back tandem has lived together, spent time in each other’s hometowns during vacations from school and even cooked meals for each other as they’ve built a friendship they both cherish.

“People talk about their team being their family, but with me and LJ we really are like brothers,” Benton said. “We just love each other.”

Benton and Johnson have become inseparable since their first encounter.

“Whenever you see me, you see him. Ter’Ran is my best friend, on the field and off the field,” Johnson said. “I’m a guy that opens up to very few but has a good relationship with everyone. It’s good to have Ter’Ran on my side.”

A second-team All-Big 12 honoree at cornerback last season, Johnson enters 2011 as the veteran of the defense having started in 30 consecutive games. Johnson, who was a NCAA Freshman All-American in 2008 as a kick returner, has honed his athleticism and learned more about how to play the cornerback position within the ISU defensive scheme.

“Leonard just competes so hard every day. He’s had a phenomenal training camp, I’ve been very pleased with his maturity and growth into becoming a big-time cornerback,” said ISU coach Paul Rhoads. “I really believe, in three years, he’s played more on athleticism than he has the position and right now he looks like a very skilled corner to me.”

Johnson has shown maturity off the field as well, with a prime example occurring this July when he organized a free football camp for nearly 250 kids in his hometown of Clearwater, Fla.

Along with teammates Jeremiah George and Jarvis West, Johnson taught the kids basic football fundamentals and tried to show them they can rise above the violence and crime that can plague urban areas such as Clearwater.

“I think I’ve matured a lot, but that just comes with age,” Johnson said. “I have a lot of guys that look up to me now, so, I mean, I’m in a different role, a different position.”

This offseason, Johnson introduced Benton to an idea that he called “The Up Movement,” a motto that both players have implemented as leaders of the ISU secondary. When a teammate gets beat on a route by a wide receiver or misses a tackle, Benton and Johnson seek out that player in practice and tell him to “get up.”

“With the opponents that we play, you can never be down, can never be average,” Benton said. “We tell the guys to keep their heads up and if they do that hopefully they’ll up [their play] a notch.”

Another motto heard often at ISU practices and one that is spelled out on the rear of each player’s practice shorts is “Swarm and Punish.” ISU defensive coordinator Wally Burnham believes the swarm and punish mentality will be key for ISU’s defense to create turnovers this season.

“We want to swarm to the ball, punish the ball carrier whoever it is and be in the right position,” Burnham said. “The key is if you’re chasing the ball, good things are going to happen sooner or later.”

Last season, Northern Iowa, the Cyclones’ opponent Saturday, led Iowa State in almost every major statistical category. However, five takeaways by the ISU defense stunted numerous Panther drives and accounted for 14 of ISU’s 27 points.

“We’ve got to score somehow on defense to help our offense; that’s a primary goal every week,” Burnham said.

Uncharacteristic of most defenses, Iowa State’s linebackers had more interceptions (seven) than the defensive backfield did (six) last season.

“It’s not like we’re not presented with the opportunities, it’s just on us if we want to make the play or not,” Johnson said. “We’ve had our chances, we just have got to take advantage of them.”

Benton, Johnson and the rest of the ISU squad take to Jack Trice Stadium on Saturday night for the 2011 season opener against Northern Iowa. Kickoff is scheduled for 6 p.m.