Big Sky Figures to Remember - Modern Era

“Big Sky figures worth remembering” – Trumaine Johnson, Montana

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At Skyline Sports, we love the stories and characters that emerge from one of the most authentic conferences in the West. The Big Sky Conference is steeped in history and heroes, holding a mystique that is unique to a conference featuring as many rural yet state-funded institutions in the United States.

One of our primary goals at Skyline Sports is the archiving of history across the state of Montana and across the Big Sky. In an effort to make sure we never forget some of the most pivotal and influential figures in the 58-year history of the league, we are introducing a quick-hitting series about those who once graced the Big Sky.

We will touch on players we’ve been able to cover (particularly in photograph) during our seven years covering the league as an entity (categorized as “Skyline Era”. We will also remember players from Colter Nuanez’s first seven years covering the league (2006-2013) during his time working in newspapers and magazines (categorized as Modern Era).

And we will also chronicle memorable figures from before we covered the league professionally, before we watched the league at all or even from before we were born thanks to the help of our great friends and colleagues from across the Big Sky (categorized as “Archived Era”).

Please enjoy “Big Sky Conference figures worth remembering”

THE CHARACTER

Trumaine Johnson, a lockdown cornerback who bridged eras of Griz history and became Montana’s highest NFL draft pick – and most successful pro – of the last 25 years.

Johnson came to Montana in the last years of Bobby Hauck’s first tenure in 2008 and left after Robin Pflugrad’s final (and later vacated) season in 2011. Six-foot-three with 4.5 speed and great ballhawking instincts, he was the prototype of a pro cornerback. No surprise, he dominated the Big Sky for most of four years, playing on teams that went to three FCS semifinals and two national championship games before being drafted in the third round. The Griz haven’t made it that far in the postseason since Johnson’s senior year 10 years ago.

FILE – In this Oct. 31, 2009, file photo, Montana cornerback Trumaine Johnson, center, intercepts a pass during an NCAA college football game against Weber State in Missoula, Mont. (AP Photo/Mike Albans, File)

THE TIMELINE

Johnson, from Stockton, California, signed with Montana in 2008 with the expectation of playing offense, yet started as a true freshman that year for a team that lost the national championship game, although Johnson missed the playoff run with an injury. He broke into stardom the next year with a first team All-Big Sky selection, his first of three straight as he played at that level for the rest of his Montana career.

Johnson was drafted by the St. Louis Rams in the third round of the 2012 NFL Draft. He had his first NFL interception on Sept. 30, 2012, and started for the Rams from 2014 to 2017 before signing a five-year, $72.5 million contract with the New York Jets. He hasn’t played in the NFL since 2019, and was most recently cut from the Carolina Panthers’ practice squad in 2020.

THE MEASURABLES

Johnson was listed at 6-foot-3 in his final year at Montana, presaging the age of the long, physical cornerback that NFL teams started looking for in the last decade. He was officially listed at 6’1 ⅞” and 204 pounds at the 2012 NFL combine. That listed weight made him the fourth-biggest corner at the combine, where he also ran a 4.50 40-yard dash and recorded 19 reps on the bench press, tied for fifth among 36 players listed at cornerback.

His other measurements at the combine included:

  • 35.5-inch vertical (10th among corners)
  • 122-inch broad jump (eighth)
  • 7.20 seconds in the three-cone drill (23rd)
  • 4.15 seconds in the shuttle (14th)

THE LANDSCAPE

Johnson arrived at Montana off a Hall of Fame career at Edison High School in Stockton. Still, nobody expected him to slot right into a Montana defense that had allowed just over 14 points per game in 2007 and gone undefeated until a shocking loss to Wofford in the first round of the FCS playoffs.

The fact he did just that — starting the first 11 of Montana’s games in 2008 until getting hurt late in the season — was the first indication that he was special. Johnson was named honorable mention All-Big Sky that season.

Johnson then led the Griz with five interceptions and 12 pass deflections in 2009, finishing near the top of the Big Sky charts in both as well as being named first-team all-conference. He remained at that level for the rest of his Montana career.

Johnson and the Griz played in the national championship game in the first two years of his career, losing both times. The 23-21 loss to Villanova in 2009 marked the end of Bobby Hauck’s first tenure as Griz head coach, and Montana fell to 7-4, lost to Montana State and missed the playoffs in 2010 under Pflugrad. They bounced back to make the national semifinals in 2011, Johnson’s senior year, but that entire season was later vacated due to NCAA infractions.

THE ACCOLADES

Johnson is one of just 53 players in Big Sky history to be named first-team all-conference in three separate years (Individual records were vacated for Montana’s 2011 season, so the official record book lists 52, excluding Johnson).

He was also named first-team All-America in 2010 and 2011.

Even with the two interceptions from his senior season wiped from the record books, Johnson sits fourth in Montana history for career picks with 13, tied with Blaine McElmurry and Torrey Thomas. With the 2011 picks, he would be tied for third with Tim Hauck.

Since Johnson went in the third round (65th overall) to the Rams in 2012, no Big Sky player has been picked higher in the NFL Draft. Since the turn of the millennium, the only Big Sky player drafted higher was Eastern Washington offensive tackle Michael Roos, who went 41st overall to the Tennessee Titans in 2005. In the entire history of Montana football, the only Griz player ever drafted higher was offensive lineman Scott Gragg, who went 54th overall to the New York Giants in 1995.

Johnson was third in the NFL in interceptions with seven in 2015, one behind league leaders Reggie Nelson and Marcus Peters.

When his NFL career seemingly ended in 2020, he ranked 13th among active players with 23 career interceptions, tied with Tyrann Mathieu and fellow 2012 draftee Casey Hayward.

THE PRESS

Johnson’s big day: Griz cornerback has game to remember against Weber

Nothing false about Montana football player Trumaine Johnson

Finally healthy, Johnson shores up Griz secondary

Tru focus: Montana’s All-America cornerback brings leadership to secondary

Johnson, McSurdy waiting for NFL calls

QUOTABLE

“He’s a guy that a lot of people missed on. He’s a dynamic kid, he can do anything. He can return, he can play on defense, he can play on offense.” — Montana head coach Bobby Hauck

A big physical corner, that’s nice to have, and they’re hard to get in the Big Sky, because they all seem to go to the Pac-12 or down to the South.” — Former Montana head coach Robin Pflugrad

“He’s in the top five fastest guys (on the Griz). He has size, he’s got physical strength … it’s a good combination to have. He’s just an all-around athlete. God blessed him.” — Former Montana cornerbacks coach Aric Williams

“The interceptions and the pass knockdowns are the things that show up. But he was also real physical in the run game when they spilled it to him. When they tried to get their power and their stretch to the edge and crack the safety, he was right there, and he was physical on the running back.” — Montana head coach Bobby Hauck

APPEARANCES IN BIG SKY RECORD BOOK

  • First-team all-conference in 2009 and 2010
  • All-American in 2009 and 2010
  • Defensive Player of the Week (Week 2, 2009)
  • Tied for fourth in Montana history in interceptions

WHY YOU SHOULD REMEMBER

St. Louis Rams cornerback Trumaine Johnson

By virtue of his talent and his circumstances, Trumaine Johnson filled roles that few players in Montana history have ever had to, before or since. He collected interesting narratives like some people collect comic books.

He was the rare freshman good enough to start for the Griz in the final days of Bobby Hauck’s golden age in the late 2000s.

He was the star of the team when the program crumbled in 2010 and 2011, first with a down season on the field in 2010 and then with multiple sexual assault scandals and NCAA sanctions that vacated the 2011 season.

An out-of-state player in a program that prided itself on winning with Montana players, he still became a fan favorite with his game-changing highlights, his Cali swagger and his easily chantable name (TRUUUUUU!).

Fairly or not, he became a face of the program’s struggles off the field too. In 2009, the Montana Kaimin student newspaper reported that Johnson and cornerback Andrew Swink assaulted another student after a frat party. In 2011, Johnson and quarterback Gerald Kemp were tasered by police in an incident at a house party that led to both being charged with misdemeanors. Each pled no contest in March of 2012. Johnson had already exhausted his eligibility. Kemp was dismissed from the program two months later.

In the Missoulian’s archives, stories about Johnson’s numerous postseason All-America awards in 2011 are interspersed with headlines about the latter case, which included a police investigation into the use of excessive force by the arresting officers. Johnson was also arrested for a DUI in Missoula in 2013, later pleading guilty to reckless driving.

Johnson didn’t always take practice or workouts seriously. He didn’t have to, relying on his talent to get through.

“Complete 360 from a year ago to now. The last eight months, I have to say, he’s been really focused off the field, doing the right thing in the weight room, at practice,” former Griz corners coach Aric Williams said — in 2011, after Johnson had already been a two-time first-team all-Big Sky selection!

But Johnson also famously played through a broken bone in his forearm in 2009. He stayed loyal to Montana, a place he had no prior connections to, not transferring even after Hauck left and he could easily have landed at an FBS school.

At the same time, he was a legitimate high-round NFL prospect in a way that few Big Sky players ever are. The stereotype of a Montana player who makes it in the NFL is that they’ve done so through hard work, bounced around the league and clawed for spots at the bottom of rosters.

Shann Schillinger went in the sixth round. Marc Mariani and Jimmy Wilson went in the seventh. Chase Reynolds, Brock Coyle and Dante Olsen were undrafted. They had to go to the league and prove they were good enough. The league came to Trumaine Johnson.

In the end, that’s a fitting epitaph for the career of one of the most iconoclastic athletes to ever play in the Big Sky. Trumaine Johnson was different.

Story by Andrew Houghton. Photos attributed. All Rights Reserved.

About Andrew Houghton

Andrew Houghton grew up in Washington, DC. He graduated from the University of Montana journalism school in December 2015 and spent time working on the sports desk at the Daily Tribune News in Cartersville, Georgia, before moving back to Missoula and becoming a part of Skyline Sports in early 2018.

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