DT Johnson a bloomer but not an early riser

Seeking to maximize the enormous potential of an enormous man, Indiana head coach Tom Allen zeroed in on a finer detail.

Jerome Johnson, the Hoosiers’ nearly 300-pound defensive tackle, didn’t seem all that happy stepping into the weight room each morning.

“He’d still work, but he didn’t act like he wanted to be there by his body language,” Allen said at Big Ten media days in July. “I was like ‘If you are going to be a leader, you can’t walk in there looking like that.’ … That affects other people around you.”

After Monday’s practice, Johnson agreed. Allen read him right.

But here’s why: He’s just not a morning person.

“So I would have a look on my face,” Johnson said. “You could tell I didn’t want to be there, I didn’t want to talk to you.”

Johnson wore a big smile as he recalled his lapses in exuberance. A big ol’ smile — however fake in the early mornings — is a tool he’s mastered for walks into the weight room. Red Bull helps, too.

The redshirt junior from Bassfield, Mississippi, understands why his coaches want more. They have seen him flash on film, including three tackles for loss versus Purdue. But there were other times in 2018 where Johnson was almost invisible, neutralized — a non-factor.

“It definitely showed me I could play at another level, and I need to take my game to that level at all times,” Johnson said of his team MVP performance against Purdue. “Play hard all the time.”

In the lead-up to the 2019 season, Johnson’s name has been mentioned many times over. Allen says Johnson could be a “dominant” three-technique in the Big Ten. It was Johnson’s high school coach who told Allen, if the kid could harness his potential, he might be explosive enough to play in the NFL one day.

But few programs held that optimistic of a view. For the most part, historically black colleges and universities pursued Johnson. He may have ended up at Alcorn State if IU didn’t jump in last-minute. When he was an assistant at Ole Miss, Allen saw Johnson at a prospect camp and remembered the name.

IU’s defensive line coach, Mark Hagen, wasn’t all that impressed when Johnson arrived in 2016.

“I remember a big, out-of-shape, underdeveloped guy from the southern part of Mississippi,” Hagen said. “I didn’t know if he was going to last even a day, to be honest with you. We laugh about it now.”

Three years later, Johnson is no longer an unimpressive 340-pounder. In fact, the issue with him now is keeping weight on.

He can certainly eat.

“I can eat about three large pizzas by myself,” Johnson said. “I will say that.”

He can also run. Allen thinks back two years, when Johnson caught Penn State running back (and current New York Giant) Saquon Barkley from behind.

“Granted, he was cutting, it wasn’t a straight race,” Allen said. “But he’s a three-technique. He shouldn’t have even been close to him.”

Those kinds of plays remind IU’s coaching staff of Johnson’s untapped potential, which has steadily dripped out. They just want a little more this year.

Especially this year. Opposite Johnson at defensive tackle is a pair of junior college transfers, Juan Harris and Demarcus Elliott, as well as a stable of younger players, such as redshirt freshmen Shamar Jones, Jonathan King and Gavin McCabe. True freshmen Sio Nofoagatoto’a and C.J. Person are also in the mix.

Excellent as a run defender, Hagen thinks Johnson can improve as an interior pass-rusher. That’s just a matter of Johnson building confidence in his moves. Hagen also needs Johnson to have more confidence in his voice. And he has shown that, pulling teammates aside when they aren’t quite grasping a concept.

“He realizes we lost a lot of guys, and to help my cause, so I don’t have to play 70, 80 snaps, I have to coach these guys up,” Hagen said.

“Jerome Johnson is a better player if he’s playing 45 snaps versus 60 or 65 snaps. That’s just the laws of nature, the laws of science.”

IU is just trying to foster a competitive mindset in fall camp, hoping some younger players will progress — just as Johnson has throughout his career.

Another “diamond in the rough” type may be Elliott, or “D-Mac,” as the Hoosiers are calling him, who has impressed Hagen early in camp.

“He’s not a great athlete, but he is a high, high, high effort guy,” Hagen said of the 328-pound sophomore from Garden City, Kansas. “He’s just relentless in how he plays and he just keeps on coming. I love it. I think it can rub off on everybody.”

Energy can be infectious, as Johnson would know. He is also ambitious.

“I have a goal for myself, personally, to get on the All-Big Ten list,” Johnson said. “With (Allen) encouraging me, and the other coaches encouraging me, and me working harder, I think it can happen.”

And how about the NFL, as Johnson’s high school coach once thought possible?

That is certainly his aim. But give him some time.

“Yeah, but I don’t like to think too far in the future,” Johnson said. “I like to take it slow.”

9 comments

  1. I believe the interior of the DL can overachieve. It is the DE’s that really have to shine and improve from last season. Hagen can develop players but the DE’s have to have the talent to do it.

    1. Agreed. IU really needs to develop guys at the DE position. James Head looks the part but I don’t know if he’s ready to take that next step. Gavin Everett is pretty solid against the run but doesn’t offer much in terms of pass rush. Sounded like the coaches are high on Allen Stallings but I haven’t seen enough from him to rave about him. What DE is going to step up this season? Other guys in the mix like Alfred Bryant, Tramar Reece, and Michael Ziemba could be productive but it’s more wait and see for those guys with me. How ready is Beau Robbins? Maybe Robbins can provide some pass rush help now?

  2. By my count the roster lists 11 guys that fit description of an interior DL and six guys at DE. I’m sure that several of these are crossover types that can play both the DT & DE positions. For now I’m comfortable with a starting D line of G Everett, J Johnson, J Harris & A Stallings. The well known issue is depth. I feel comfortable with DEs James Head & Al Bryant, also Mike Ziemba. Therefore, if Coach Hagen can bring along some of the new guys such as Demarcus Elliott & Sio Nofogatoto’a, Beau Robbins, CJ Person & King I think the DL will be ok. Just hope the serious injury bug stays out of Bloomington this fall. All in all, I like the direction TA is taking IU Football but Hoosiers MUST sneak up on some of the Big10 power teams. This year’s schedule brings OSU, Northwestern & Michigan to Bloomington. Hoosiers gotta clip one of those teams, IMO. Why not?

  3. wolfem, I think IU has a chance to beat NW and Michigan this year. OSU is probably beyond our reach.

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