IU’s Johnson the versatile piece that helps drive dominant secondary

Ohio State running back Master Teague didn’t seem to know what was coming as Indiana’s Jamar Johnson came blitzing off the edge.

Johnson, the Hoosiers’ safety, made a step to his right, acting as if he was going to try and whip around Teague with his speed. That’s what many athletic, ball-hawking safeties might look to do.

But after that quick step, Johnson did something that belies his 197-pound frame. He took a couple of hard steps into the 225-pound running back, lowering his shoulder. Teague, whose left foot was still wide to his left, aiming to cut off a speed rush, was far too separated from his right. His rear end was squatted far too low to absorb Johnson’s impending bull rush.

“Really, it didn’t feel too hard,” Johnson said of the collision, which leveled Teague, leaving quarterback Justin Fields prey to IU’s safety for a sack. “But that’s just the aggressiveness that comes with the game.”

Johnson’s combo of speed and power is hard for a running back to calculate in pass protection. His ball skills are a chore for quarterbacks to work around, as well, as the junior safety has come away with four interceptions on the season, tied for third in the Big Ten.

But it makes all the sense in the world as Johnson explains it. He grew up playing the linebacker position. He always had that aggressive edge about him, wanting to initiate contact. The Sarasota, Fla., native also played receiver for Riverview High, collecting a modest 13 catches for 219 yards as a senior, but the ball skills were there.

IU fans probably got their first big clue in last year’s Gator Bowl, when the then-hybrid linebacker and safety, or “husky,” returned an interception 63 yards for a touchdown versus Tennessee. That offseason, IU defensive coordinator Kane Wommack made a decision.

He was moving Johnson to free safety, where he could make more plays like that.

“When you go back and look at this season, one of the best things we’ve done is to be able to utilize our personnel and maximize our players,” Wommack said. “I’ve certainly made plenty of mistakes in my career, and I’ll make others. But moving Jamar to that free safety position certainly wasn’t one of them. That’s one we hit big on.”

Johnson, a first-team All-Big Ten selection, made his share of big plays in 2020. But there are other examples of what Wommack is referring to.

When the Hoosiers lost husky Marcelino Ball to an ACL tear in fall camp, Bryant Fitzgerald plugged the hole, but Wommack also found ways to return Johnson to his husky role from time to time. He also created packages for cornerback Tiawan Mullen, another Florida native, to use his athleticism as a blitzing “nickel back.”

With the extended absence of defensive end Lance Bryant, who was playing in a two-point stance as IU’s “bull” rush-end position, a former linebacker in D.K. Bonhomme was moved there and continued the athletic evolution of that role in the Hoosiers’ 4-2-5 scheme.

In the run-stopping phase, IU moved a 6-foot-3, 291-pound redshirt freshman, C.J. Person, from a defensive tackle spot to a defensive end to combat opposing offenses’ “heavy” personnel sets. On plenty of run plays in 2020, Person was an immovable object on the edge.

And that brings it back to Johnson. He has 34 tackles on the year, which is just a couple short of Mullen for second on the team. But add in his four interceptions, and he’s been a true dual-threat at the safety position. Not bad for a player who was rated by recruiting sites as the No. 1,130 prospect in the country in the 2018 class.

Going into a matchup with an explosive Ole Miss offense, which can both establish a run game and push the ball downfield, Johnson will be a player to watch.

“You gotta find a way to get the right people on the field in the right situation,” Wommack said. “This week will be a great challenge for that with the tempo that Ole Miss works on. We have to find ways to maximize our personnel and scheme.”

Johnson will not only be in the spotlight schematically Saturday, but he will also have many eyes on him personally. Sarasota is just an hour south from Tampa, so the junior safety will have more than a few fans in the stands at Raymond James Stadium.

Johnson put the number at somewhere around 30.

“We have a lot of family coming … and then people from my city I don’t even know,” Johnson said. “This is going to be a big one. I’m going to have a lot of representation from the 914 there.”

Johnson’s family can speak to his versatility, but in a totally different way.

He’s not a bad cook.

May Louise Johnson, his grandmother, is a certified chef, and Jamar learned much from her. He was able to cook eggs by the time he was five. He eventually mastered baked spaghetti and key lime pie.

“Anything he wanted to cook, I put him right to the stove and let him do it,” May Louise said. “He started at nine and added his own little touches to things. I used to let him cook for me. He loves cooking.”

Jamar lists a variety of chicken dishes — grilled or barbequed, accompanied by rice or shrimp — as some of his favorites.

“I don’t see anything I can’t make, really,” he said.

IU’s players are the beneficiary. Johnson will make food and then text them to come over.

“Over the summer, we were grilling at the pool every day almost,” Jamar said. “Just everybody go to the store, chip in whatever, everyone bring something. Shoot, we’d just have a little team get-together.”

Jamar then cooked up some plays for the Hoosiers on the field during the season. Just like he did in the Gator Bowl versus Tennessee, Johnson is hoping to shine one more time in the state of Florida.

IU’s last bowl win came in 1991, a little less than eight years before Johnson was born.

“The energy level is high, because we know what’s at stake,” Johnson said. “This program has only won three bowl games, and we’ve taken it upon us this year to make sure we do whatever we have to do to get a win.”

Indy Star’s Zach Osterman contributed to this report.

6 comments

  1. I have loved watching Jamar playing this year especially the way he finished last year. The game against TN was his coming out party and this year he continued his ball hawking trend. Like other DBs on the team he does a variety of roles to help stop offenses and confuse the QB.

    I hope coach Allen names a DC that will continue the progress the defense has made.

    OSU showed tonight that devaluing what IU accomplished in the season was wrong by the play-off committee. I think Dabo screwed up criticizing the Buckeyes and B1G and it bit Clemson in the butt tonight. Auburn took a beating from NW and now Clemson takes it on the chin; the B1G is doing well in the bowl games they are playing. Now it is time for the Hoosiers to show the SEC what B1G teams are like and it isn’t like the SEC this year.

    1. Wouldn’t be too hard on Swinney Todd, V13. Tom Allen has mimicked his recruiting style and the heavy doses of faith injected into the football product. We’ve become a sort of mini Clemson.

      Hard to believe Penix threw for 500 yards against that same Buckeye team….Like I’ve always said, the highest levels of talent are more vulnerable to emotional lows and uninspired play when the limelight is turned off. Did the big talent on OSU mostly sleepwalk against us because the lack of fans, lack of limelight and little attention given to a game against Hoosiers during a pandemic?
      Did we see the real Buckeyes faced by Clemson? And Notre Dame…? Give it up already…You’re a disgrace to golden domes everywhere….proving, once again, Hoosiers are of basketball genes from a great basketball state.

      1. H4H, who knows, IU may now be a football team energized by the crowd as they are certainly different than past IU football teams. There are many ways this Hoosier team is different as we have more play makers on defense and we have players that know how to win games. They have shown this the past two years. Don’t ignore the need for teams to know how to win as the difference between teams isn’t as very big at IU’s level now.

        The amazing thing now is IU is more of a football school than basketball school.

        1. But to play devil’s advocate for just a bit, V, this could be akin to our football team’s Loyola basketball moment.
          Is Loyola now a consistent prominent national basketball powerhouse because they went to a Final Four two years ago? I know you don’t follow a lot of hoops, but you must be aware of Sister Jean Stapleton (that’s for you, davis).

          Until you have 5 Rose Bowl wins and a couple national championships under the pigskin belt, I don’t think anyone in the world will see us as a football school. You have to sustain greatness for a very long time…Our basketball heyday seems distant, but, at the end of the day …and at the end of a decade times four, it was far more than a blip on the radar.

          We could just be in a ‘Sister Jean’ football moment. Some luck? Some fate? Some divine intervention? Some uptick in talent…? Some temporary leveling of the playing field in a topsy-turvy season of tempered excitement and empty stadiums?

          How big would the stage have been (our Loyola of Chicago Final Four in football) had we hadn’t just come close at OSU? That school is still the giant camel’s hump, V. Until we run the table and conquer that hump, any true transformation of national respect will be tough to secure.

  2. Three things. IU is NOT wearing the Outback or B1G logo. Good for Coach and Dolson! #2. Based on what occurred today, IU should have not only been invited to a Jan 1 bowl,..they should have been playing Alabama or OSU. #3. If there is a more dismissive and condescending sports analyst on TV than Kirk Herbstreit…I can’t imagine who it might be.

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