Why Ja'Len Johnson really is a Star for the Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns football team

Tim Buckley
Lafayette Daily Advertiser

People have often struggled with UL football player Ja’Len Johnson's name. Some spell his first name incorrectly, forgetting the apostrophe or not knowing the “L” is capitalized.

Johnson has grown accustomed to it.

“I don’t even correct people anymore,” he said.

Whatever he’s called, Johnson is appreciated.

“That dude is a big part of the defense,” cornerback Mekhi Garner said. “He may not make every play, but he plays smart, you know what I mean? He does his one job.”

Precisely what that means is even confusing for his friends and family.

The Ragin’ Cajuns call it “Star,” code for nickelback.

“I tell them the nickel,” Johnson said, “and I try to explain that it’s kind of like an outside linebacker or safety position.”

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Understanding all its inherent responsibilities isn’t easy, even for Johnson.

“It did take me a little while to get comfortable with it because in high school I (played) corner,” said Johnson, a product of Central Catholic in Morgan City. “Now I moved closer to the line, and everything’s happening right in my face.”

Johnson a 'unique player'

A fifth-year junior, Johnson inherited the position from Terik Miller.

He began starting in 2020, when he opened nine of 11 games and had 34 tackles, including five games with at least four tackles.

Size is the main reason Johnson, listed at 6-foot-2 and 208 pounds, is well-suited for the position.

“I’m a bigger person than most of our safeties in the room,” he said. “I’m the biggest safety we have. I think it kind of fits me. I can kind of maneuver. I fit in well with tight ends.”

Ja'Len Johnson, UL's "Star," makes the stop as safety Bralen Trahan (24) during last season's win over Arkansas State at Cajun Field.

Recruited as a corner, Johnson began as a special teams player and built trust with Cajun coaches.

“He’s a big, physical presence, but he’s extremely athletic. … He’s almost got a linebacker build,” said defensive coordinator Patrick Toney, suggesting Johnson weighs about 215. “But he can go out there and cover slot receivers. He can play the deep part of the field if you ask him to do that.

“So he’s extremely versatile. Then … he can knock the runner back. He can play physical in the box. ... I haven’t coached too many guys like that.”

Johnson stood out during a four-tackle outing in a mid-November win over South Alabama last season.

“It was a game where his skill set really applied defensively,” coach Billy Napier said.

“... He has good speed. He’s a smart, conscientious young man too and a guy that’s only going to get better.”

Brandon Bishop 'a factor' too

Napier is also high on another nickel, Alabama transfer Brandon Bishop.

From Tuscaloosa’s Hillcrest High, Bishop transferred to UL in 2019. He appeared in 11 games, mostly on special teams.

The former walk-on won a scholarship and appeared headed for a big role last year, but broke his leg and missed the season.    

“He was one of the best players on our team (before getting hurt),” Napier said. “He’s been on a long road to recovery, but he’s back and certainly will be a factor there.”

Bishop and Johnson provide Cajuns coaches ample confidence at the position as they prepare No. 23 UL for Saturday’s season opener at No. 19 Texas.

“The Star position is (an) area where we have a lot of depth,” Toney said.