Johnson playing wherever he’s needed in IU secondary

He plays cornerback and safety, even a little Husky, too.

How does Jamar Johnson do it?

“I got that Florida-boy swag,” he said. “It’s just natural.”

It’s true. What Johnson has been asked to do during his first few months at Indiana isn’t anything new. The freshman defensive back played every secondary position at Riverview High School in Sarasota, Fla., in addition to moonlighting at receiver and on special teams.

The jump to college football often means a chance for young, versatile prospects to specialize. For Johnson, coming to IU meant an opportunity to impact the Hoosiers’ defense in a handful of ways.

Just like he’s always done.

“It keeps me on my toes,” Johnson said.

And it keeps a whole bunch of options available for IU coach Tom Allen, who has moved Johnson around the defensive backfield as needed through the first month of the season.

While recruiting Johnson, Allen and his staff saw Johnson’s versatility for what it was — a chance to get creative. At 6-foot-1, 200 pounds, Johnson has the physical tools and athleticism to adequately cover receivers in space, while also making stops against bigger-bodied running backs.

It’s an unusual, diverse workload for someone so young, but through six games, Johnson is demonstrating he can handle it.

“That’s uncommon,” Allen said. “It’s rare to have a guy that can do that physically. We don’t have too many on our team that I can say, ‘Hey, this guy can play five different spots in the secondary.’ When did we figure that out? Once he got here.”

Although Allen and his staffers are limited in what they can watch and do with players during the summer, IU’s strength and conditioning staff passed along glowing reports about Johnson’s athleticism and the way his frame was growing.

Throughout the recruiting process, Indiana’s coaches believed Johnson had the physical tools to play wherever he was needed in the secondary.

His first summer on campus confirmed it.

“The first couple days we saw him work out in the summer (was when we knew),” safeties coach Kasey Teegardin said. “Just the way he moves his body. He carries 200 pounds really well, but he’s very fast. He’s very athletic.

“We tried to put him through a little bit of a workout, and when he came out guys were like, ‘Did he even do anything in that?’ He’s just a natural freak. He’s a five-tool player. That’s honestly how we view him. We feel he can play all five positions on the back end.”

Johnson began working at safety during fall camp, then moved to Husky — IU’s hybrid safety/linebacker position — last week. An automatic targeting suspension for Marcelino Ball and an injury suffered by Cam Jones thinned the ranks at the latter, leaving Johnson as one of Indiana’s best options entering Saturday’s game at Rutgers.

Johnson rose to the call, picking off a pass in the end zone during the second quarter, saving a touchdown. That play earned him this week’s game ball.

“I was on the tight end and I saw he went for the flat route,” Johnson said. “I knew he was going to turn up. I was thinking they’re only trying to get it to three players … so I knew once they had me one-on-one they would try to do a wheel route with him. I got my head around, hopped on it and picked it.”

It wasn’t the first big play Johnson has made for the Hoosiers.

During IU’s Sept. 15 win over Ball State, Johnson had two key blocks on J-Shun Harris’ 86-yard punt return touchdown. His first block allowed Harris to make his move to the outside, before his second flattened two potential tacklers and paved a way for Harris to sprint toward the end zone.

“I remember that,” linebacker Reakwon Jones recalled this week. “We watched it that Monday in the film room. He’s impressive. He does what he can on special teams. Then, when he gets a chance on defense, he comes in and he executes.”

Much like athlete Reese Taylor was recruited to impact both sides of the ball, and running back Stevie Scott was recruited with both offense and defense in mind, Johnson is a further example of the kind of recruiting philosophy Allen preaches.

“You say, ‘Hey, you recruit the best players you can find and you figure out what side of ball you’re going to put ’em on once they get here,'” Allen said. “We kind of thought this guy could play corner or safety, and then you get the element of a husky, which to me, the element of a husky there is a physicality to you. Not just the speed and athleticism, but can he have the girth and the size to be able to tackle Big Ten running backs?”

Johnson seems to fit that mold. Although Allen would like to eventually settle on a spot where he feels Johnson fits best, the IU coach is receptive to using the freshman wherever he’s needed most this season.

So far, Johnson is proving he’s up for the challenge.

In his case, it’s nothing new.

“As long as I’m on the field, I’m good,” Johnson said. “… I try to take advantage of my opportunity, whatever it is — defense, kickoffs, whatever. I just try to go 100 percent.”