James-Michael Johnson didn’t have to look far to find a linebacker to emulate when he played at the University of Nevada.
Josh Mauga was the man. Johnson, as a redshirt freshman, patterned himself after Mauga, from how he studied film to how he smashed running backs and sacked quarterbacks, before joining him in the Wolfpack lineup.
Now, Johnson and Mauga are together again. But not exactly according to plan.
Johnson, in his second season with the Chiefs, will step into the role vacated by Pro Bowl inside linebacker Derrick Johnson, who is out for the season after suffering a ruptured Achilles tendon in the season-opening loss to Tennessee.
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Mauga, a five-year veteran who joined the Chiefs at the start of training camp, took over at the other inside spot in the base 3-4 defense and had eight tackles against the Titans in place of Joe Mays, who is out at least six weeks after undergoing wrist surgery.
Chiefs fans — and even their own teammates — may not know much about either linebacker. Though it’s been six years since they played together, Johnson and Mauga hope their familiarity with each other will help them plug up the teeth of the defense, starting Sunday at Denver.
“It’s great knowing each other,” Mauga said. “We can communicate a lot better, just knowing each other from the past to now. We can get out the calls. … We know where each is playing, because we’ve switched off playing each position (in preseason).”
Mauga, 27, and Johnson, 25, are both on the rebounds in their careers.
Mauga, the Western Athletic Conference leader in tackles through Nevada’s first seven games in 2007, suffered a knee injury that kept him out of action until he posted 11 tackles in a bowl game against New Mexico. He then had knee surgery, went undrafted and sat out the 2008 season before signing as a free agent in 2009 with the New York Jets.
After spending his rookie year on the practice squad, Mauga appeared in 29 games for the Jets, mostly on special teams during 2010-12, before he missed all of 2013 with a back injury and was released. Because he was familiar with defensive coordinator Bob Sutton’s system with the Jets, the Chiefs signed Mauga on the first day of training camp.
“I wasn’t sure what would happen to me, if I’d get a second or third chance,” said Mauga, who wasn’t cleared to play until last June. “Luckily, the Chiefs gave me a call. I never wanted to settle for being the injured guy and not being able to play because of that.
“Knowing Bob, knowing his defense, made the transition a little easier. There’s playmakers all over this defense. It makes me want to get out there and step my game up and try to be one of those playmakers.”
Johnson, who took Mauga’s spot in the Nevada defense as a sophomore, was a fourth-round draft pick by Cleveland in 2012 and started eight games as a rookie before going on injured reserve with a knee injury. After a new front office and coaching staff took over in Cleveland last season, Johnson was released in the final roster cutdown, and the Chiefs, who had first call on waived players, quickly claimed him.
Johnson appeared in all 16 regular-season games for the Chiefs on special teams and started the regular-season finale at San Diego, making nine tackles, breaking up one pass and sacking Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers. He participated in 76 snaps on Sunday against Tennessee — 49 on defense after Derrick Johnson was injured and 27 on special teams.
“We thought JMJ was a good, solid linebacker,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “We felt that he had been better in the (nickel), so that’s where we used him a little bit last year, and we had started using him in that position this year. But we do feel like he can step up and if he needs to play more, then he’ll play more.”
James-Michael Johnson realizes he’s stepping into the shoes of Derrick Johnson, a three-time Pro Bowler, former team MVP and arguably the best defensive player on the club.
“You can’t replace DJ,” Johnson said. “I’m not going to try to be Derrick Johnson. I’m going to be the best James-Michael Johnson I can be. All I can focus on is waking up every day trying to be better than I was the day before.”
Reid is hopeful Derrick Johnson will serve as the same role model for James-Michael Johnson as Mauga did back at Nevada.
“DJ is a great example,” Reid said, “he’s not going anywhere. He’ll be around, too, so he can continue to be a good influence for these guys.”