By Aaron Mansfield
Najja Johnson didn't make any all-conference team after last season. Not first, second or third.
It was a bit of a disappointment for the University at Buffalo defensive back, who led the Mid-American Conference in interceptions (ranking 13th nationally with five), led his team with 11 pass break-ups and added 43 tackles. He also routinely battled the opposing team's best receiver.
His season did not go unnoticed, though. Friday, he was named to the watch list for the Jim Thorpe Award, which includes 48 of the best defensive backs in the country.
"It provides a lit bit of motivation because I felt like I played to the best of my ability last season and the fact that I wasn't recognized for anything, it hurt a little bit," Johnson said via telephone Tuesday evening. "But at the end of the day, all you can do is play to the best of your ability and hope you get recognized. If not, you've just got to keep on playing."
Johnson, a 6-foot, 182-pound senior with a propensity for picking it off, is one of four UB football players to make a watch list this summer, joining three classmates -- linebacker Khalil Mack (who is on the Butkus, Rotary Lombardi, Bronko Nagurski and Chuck Bednarik watch lists), running back Branden Oliver (Maxwell Award) and wide receiver Alex Neutz (Biletnikoff Award).
Johnson is one of three MAC players on the list, joining Dayonne Nunley (Miami Ohio) and Jimmie Ward (Northern Illinois).
"It was an honor," said Johnson, who hails from Atlanta, Ga. "Coming from where I came from, walking on the team and no one having any expectations for me, and then to be named to a prestigious list like that is definitely an honor and I couldn't be prouder, but it's still preseason."
Johnson made national airwaves in the Bulls' Nov. 23 loss at Bowling Green when he intercepted a pass on the ground with his knees, earning the No. 2 spot in SportsCenter's Top Plays.
The Doak Walker (running backs) and Walter Camp (best overall player) watch lists will be announced Thursday and Friday, respectively. Once those watch lists have been announced, The News will publish an article with a full recap of those with Western New York ties who have received recognition.
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Follow reporter Aaron Mansfield on Twitter @aaroncmansfield.