With all due respect to Tommy Nobis, the first pick in the 1966 NFL Draft, the greatest linebacker ever produced by the University of Texas is still active. He is Derrick Johnson of the Kansas City Chiefs.
Before Derrick Johnson was a tackle machine for the Kansas City Chiefs, he was a citizen of Waco. He attended Waco High School from 1997-2000, where he starred on defense. This was somewhat rare for a football player of his caliber to focus on that side of the ball. After signing at Texas in 2001 to play for Mack Brown, Johnson earned a starting role as a true freshman.
Johnson’s path to greatness as a Longhorn was entirely conventional. He arrived on campus as an 18 year old, and earned a role as a starter, racking up 4.5 sacks from his outside linebacker positoin. He returned as a Sophomore in 2002 and led Texas with 120 tackles, earning all-Big XII honors and a nod as a consensus preseason All-American as a Junior in 2003. You can rest on those accomplishments, and a lot of guys do. Johnson was even better as a Junior in 2003.
He could have taken his abilities to the NFL at that point, and would have been the top LB in the 2004 draft, but Johnson came back to play his age 21 season at Texas. This is not a decision that typically works in favor of the player, but one of the hallmarks of Derrick Johnson’s career is that he always seems to be in control. During the 2004 season, Johnson somehow managed to put up career best numbers in tackles, yards on tackles for loss, and forced fumbles. Johnson is credited with 9 forced fumbles as a senior in 2004, which either suggests a typographic error or that opponents were buttering the football. He also blocked a kick that season because why not?
In addition to being named an All-American by everyone voting on the award, Johnson was Big XII defensive player of the year. He was awarded the Dick Butkus Award for the nation’s best linebacker and the Bronko Nagurski Trophy for the nations best defensive player.
The NFL draft is often a completely nonsensical entity, so Johnson wasn’t even the first player from Texas taken in the 2005 draft (Cedric Benson – 4th overall to the Chicago Bears). Johnson wasn’t even the first linebacker taken. Georgia’s Thomas Davis went one pick before him to Carolina, although Davis came out as a safety/linebacker hybrid. Johnson got taken by the Chiefs 15th overall, although the 2005 draft is never going to be the best evidence that NFL teams have any idea what they are doing.
Derrick Johnson has been a remarkably consistent NFL player, despite playing his entire career in a Chiefs organization that hasn’t been all that stable since he’s been there. His first coach was Dick Vermeil, who retired for good after the 2005 season. He was a very good, though not excellent, linebacker for three years under Herm Edwards. Edwards was fired after the 2009 season, and then new GM Scott Pioli brought in Todd Haley and Clancy Pendergast. Pendergast initially viewed Johnson as a package player in his 3-4 system and decided to go with Demorrio Williams and Corey Mays as the starting linebackers.
After the 2009 season, Pendergast was replaced by Romeo Crennel, and Johnson emerged as an excellent 3-4 linebacker, even though he had not played that style of defense in college or the pros to that point. Over the last four years, Johnson has led the Chiefs to two playoff appearances, and he has been recognized as a 3 time pro-bowler, and a 2011 all-pro. Johnson has been one of the five best linebackers in pro football over the last five years.
Although he is now 31 and on the wrong side of his career, Derrick Johnson is as good as he has ever been. He may not have a realistic case for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, more because of poor management and getting stuck in Kansas City than anything wrong with him. He will be in the college football Hall of Fame as a Texas linebacker, and one of the better defensive players the university has ever produced.