NC State sophomore free safety Dontae Johnson has become an integral component of the Wolfpack's defense over the last three games.
NCSU has played more 4-2-5 alignments the last three contests, causing Johnson to have his snaps increase significantly and earn the start for the last two games in place of senior weakside linebacker Dwayne Maddox.
Johnson played 42 snaps at Boston College Nov. 12, 58 against Clemson on Nov. 19 and 51 vs. Maryland on Nov. 26. The totals for the 6-3, 190-pounder represent three out of the top four games he's played in this season.
The Pennington, N.J., native has responded with getting five tackles and a sack in both the Boston College and Maryland games to set season-highs. He also added three tackles against Clemson.
"Coming into the season, I was pretty much the nickel, but a lot of teams went with a different personnel, so it was just an opportunity for me to get on the field," Johnson said. "I'm just trying to help the team win.
"It feels good to know that the team puts their trust in you to put you on the field and make big plays. It's definitely an honor."
Johnson is second string at free safety behind junior Brandan Bishop, but has only played 15 snaps less than him. Bishop has also responded well to the nickel alignment with 11 tackles (10 solo) against Clemson and 10 stops against Maryland.
Bishop has 87 tackles, five interceptions, one caused fumble and three fumble recoveries through 12 games. Johnson has added 27 tackles, two sacks and two passes broken up, but is still looking for his first career interception.
Johnson knows he has improved throughout the season and feels like a veteran.
"I've improved tremendously by watching film, which always helps to get better," Johnson said. "Just coming out here and practicing every day and every week helps as well.
"To think that last year was my freshman year, and now I'm going into my junior year and have two years left. Time flies so I'm trying to capture the moment."
Johnson admits that coming off the edge on the blitz is a lot of fun for a safety.
"I have one blitz that is my favorite because the offensive lineman and the running back, I'm pretty much not counted in the scheme," Johnson said. "I like it because I can come in untouched and get to the quarterback."
The nickel defense could remain for the Louisville game Dec. 27 in the Belk Bowl in Charlotte. The Cardinals usually opt for extra wide receivers rather than play a fullback or a second tight end.
"We started watching film and coming out of the Big East, they are pretty aggressive and quick as well," Johnson said. "They have a great young quarterback [freshman Teddy Bridgewater], and they are pretty aggressive across the board."
O'Brien pointed out that losing sophomore strongside linebacker D.J. Green to a foot injury during the Florida State game Oct. 29 also affected the defensive game plan. Green was a converted safety.
"When they pushed more skill people on the field, then we have to put more skill people on it," O'Brien said. "Dwayne did a good job coming in, filling in for us, but Dwayne is more of an inside guy, not an outside guy in the field play. It kind of forced our hands a little bit that way. We've matched up personnel more the last two weeks, the last month of the season than we did previously because with D.J., we didn't have that problem with him.
"We practiced [Johnson] some as the substitution guy anyway during preseason camp which is basically that position. He's a smart kid, he's a quick learner, he's picked it up really quick."
Johnson knows the outcome of the Belk Bowl will be felt throughout the offseason, and also hopes to send the Wolfpack seniors out on a winning note.
"You remember the season by winning the bowl game instead of losing it," Johnson said. "Definitely 8-5 sounds a lot better than going 7-6 because that last game is a win.
"I was so proud and blessed for those guys [seniors], to come back and do it in that fashion [rallying from 27 points down to defeat Maryland]. It was an honor to be a part of it and to do it for the seniors."