Jaylon Johnson: Path to the NFL Draft
In 2017, a young cornerback from Central East High School, Fresno arrived at Rice Eccles-Stadium, Utah with a very specific goal in mind. Some three years later, and with a handful of honours from his time at the University of Utah to his name, Jaylon Johnson heads to the 2020 NFL Draft as one of the top cornerbacks in the nation, having achieved everything that he set out to.
“This was my plan from day one coming into college. I had a three year plan, and that was just to graduate and to declare after my third year. I had a good enough opportunity to be able to do so, so I took advantage of the goal that I set.”
Football runs in the family
His journey on the path to the NFL Draft starts and ends with one common factor.
It was from his family that a young Jaylon Johnson found his love for the game of football.
“I would say it came from my Dad and from my older brother. That was something that I watched them do. My Dad always coached my older brother until I was able to play. Then he coached me. My Dad played in college as well. He played at a high level so it just ran in the family. It was something that I always wanted to do.”
His older brother, John Johnson Jr, was a defensive back at UCLA between 2013 and 2016 and provided the inspiration for the young Jaylon Johnson.
“I was the closest one to him. Just watching him grow as a football player, trying to fill the footsteps that he laid out for me. I just always wanted to out do him. I always looked up to him and admired the work that he was able to do.”
Having played on offense, including running back and wide receiver, at a very young age, it wasn’t until he followed John’s footsteps into Central East High School that Jaylon Johnson turned his attention to playing cornerback. He immediately focused on excelling at the position.
Jaylon Johnson hones his cornerback craft
“When I got to high school I switched to playing corner and then that’s when I took the time to start learning the craft, learning the technique.”
He also excelled at basketball, to the point that he received Division I interest. Rather than pursue a college career on the court, he used the skills learned there to further hone his craft as a cornerback.
“For me, it translated a lot, especially being on defense. There’s a lot of the same methods playing defense on basketball. Just trying to stay in front, moving your feet. That translated perfectly for me being a cornerback. Just trying to move my feet, stay in front of receivers, always staying hip to hip.”
Jaylon Johnson put all those things to good use out on the football field. In this time, prospect and program grew together. It almost culminated in a state championship in his final year.
“It had its ups and downs. At the beginning of my sophomore year we weren’t too good. My junior year, we were decent. In my senior year we really stepped it up and we went to the championship. We ended up losing but overall it was a good year. I was First Team All-State that year. I was an All-American that year. High school was everything I could have asked for. It was time to get better and also to play with my friends.”
“It instilled more confidence in myself. Seeing all the success I was having, that success just made me want more. That sparked my confidence boost and just started me off.”
High School All-American
As an All-American in his senior year of high school, Jaylon Johnson was invited to the US Army All-American Bowl. Although he ultimately wouldn’t play in the game, it was an important step along the path to the NFL Draft.
“I didn’t get to play in it, I hurt my shoulder. But, honestly, just being around those guys, being around all that talent, it was a surreal moment. I mean, it’s different seeing and hearing about the guys from the other side of the country but to actually be around those guys, measure up to those guys, was a fun opportunity. A lot of those guys are now in the same position that I am, going to the combine, and going to the NFL Draft.”
Jaylon Johnson finds a home and makes an immediate impact
As a 4* recruit, and the 6th ranked cornerback in the nation, Jaylon Johnson had plenty of interest and offers to play College Football at a high level. During the process he had offers from schools in the SEC, BIG Ten, and BIG XII, but found a home in the PAC12 with the Utah Utes.
“I had a nice amount of offers but I kept the recruiting process under control and didn’t let anything get me rattled or out of control. I knew what I wanted in a school and I just went after it and chose the right school. The coaching staff [at Utah], honestly, I just felt like I could trust them the most to make me a better man and make me a better player. That was pretty much my selling point from them and knowing that I had a good opportunity to play as a freshman as well.”
Not only did he get the opportunity to play as a freshman but Jaylon Johnson made an immediate impact. He played in 10 games, logging 25 tackles and chalking up his first career interception. More impressively, he tied for the team lead in pass break ups. As with all aspects of his path to the NFL Draft, it was a goal that he set and achieved.
“That was my main goal going into college after leaving high school was that I knew that I was able to play at the next level, and at a high level. Just going in, making plays, just fitting in. Not being a typical freshman just trying to learn and sit back. I wanted to learn but I also wanted to go out and make plays and help the team out from day one.”
Being a part of something great in 2019
From day one to his final day at the end of the 2019 season, Jaylon Johnson has helped the Utah team out. He has contributed seven interceptions, two touchdowns and 21 pass break ups over his three seasons as a Ute. In his junior, and ultimately final year, the Utah Utes were one of the stories of the College Football season. The defensive unit that contained players like Bradlee Anae, Frances Bernard, and Julian Blackmon alongside Jaylon, were one of the best in the country.
“It was different from the other two seasons. We kinda had more of a hungry mentality that we didn’t have as much the years prior. We were more of a tight knit unit, just had fun with the game, and just went out to practice every week and got better. It was just fun being able to get better and win with the guys. It was a good unit to be around honestly. The guys that you listed, we were all elite because we led by example. We were always getting extra work in and that pushed other guys to get better and also to contribute to the team. It was contagious being around those guys. It pushed our defense to want to be great.”
For large periods of the College Football season, Utah appeared to be in with a shout of making the College Football Playoffs. However, defeat in the PAC12 Championship Game to Oregon knocked them out of contention for the final four.
The three year plan comes to fruition
That game in Levi’s Stadium, just two hours up the road from his hometown of Fresno would be his last for Utah. The three-year plan was complete, and Jaylon Johnson was headed to the NFL Draft.
“Going there, telling the guys that I’m not going to be running out there with them anymore and that the PAC 12 Championship Game was my last game, I mean, it didn’t sit well with me [to miss the Alamo Bowl] but I had to make a decision and they understood the decision and supported me as well. It definitely wasn’t an easy decision. I wanted to go out with the guys and be able to play with them, and just experience another bowl game and all those festivities with the guys.”
Jaylon Johnson leaves Utah with a number of accolades including back to back First Team All-Pac 12 honours and a Second Team All-American honour from his final year. Whilst some players would just be happy to receive those honours, he knows they’re just a part of building something bigger.
“Honestly they’re a testament to my team and to the hard work that I’ve put in and just the growth that I’ve been able to accomplish. It’s just a part of what I’ve been trying to accomplish, just working hard. They mean a lot, but they don’t define who I am as a player but it’s definitely nice to see that recognition and see that other people are recognising my talents.”
Jaylon Johnson: Lockdown cornerback
His talents are being widely recognised. Jaylon Johnson has a skillset that transitions well to the next level, a fact that isn’t lost on him as he explains what NFL teams are looking for in a modern-day cornerback.
“I’d say for sure somebody who can cover and who can run. The receivers now, there’s a lot of passing, and there’s a lot of fast guys as you can see from the Super Bowl. There’s heck of an athlete at receiver so somebody that can physically match up to the style of football that’s now being played. There’s a lot of need for good defensive backs and people that can cover, make plays on the ball.”
“My strong suit is my ability to cover and my ball skills as well. I don’t have any problems with making plays, or anything like that so the style of play that the game is now turning into is more suited to my best abilities. I have confidence in myself, in my abilities, and what I know I can do and just always being that consistent guy and always give it my all, and always compete.”
Cornerback is arguably one of the most important positions in the NFL. The phrase “lock down corner” is one used to describe the best in the game. It’s something that Jaylon Johnson is ready to bring to the next level.
“Oh for sure. For me, I think that I proved that this year following the other team’s best receiver every game. Just taking them out of the game and limiting the amount of plays that they make. Just pretty much controlling the air and controlling the other team’s best receiver. That’s something I did in all 13 games this year and I would consider myself that right now.”
An invitation to Indianapolis for Jaylon Johnson
With his college career in the rear-view mirror, the next step on the path to the NFL Draft for Jaylon Johnson will be the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis next weekend. He’s currently training hard at EXOS in Arizona with several other prospects. Despite the event being a series of on field tests, it’s the off-field element that he’s looking forward to the most.
“For me, I just want to answer any questions that people may not know about me, whether it’s physical or mental. I just don’t want people to say “I’m not sure if he can do this or if he can do that.”. I just want to go out and answer any questions in the interview process. They all know who I am as a player but I want to answer any questions they may have about me as a person or me and my mindset, anything like that.”
A new priority on his journey to the NFL
What the 32 NFL teams will find out about Jaylon Johnson the person is that he’s hungry to succeed and he has an overwhelming confidence in his ability to do so. That confidence comes from one particular place. Faith has played as big a part in Josh Johnson’s path to the draft as anything else.
“It was just something that I was raised on. Just believing, and just knowing that everything is going to be ok. That was just something that my mum taught me, that my parents taught me. Always have faith, not to panic. In any given situation I always keep my cool, I just always have an optimistic mindset that everything’s going to be ok.”
His football journey started with his family, and the faith that his family instilled in him has helped carry Jaylon Johnson to the NFL.
With just under two months until Roger Goodell opens the 2020 NFL Draft in Las Vegas, it’s the newest member of the Johnson family that is his main motivation at the highest level.
“My priority in life changed. I know I have to protect her with my life. That was definitely a new thing for me, knowing that I have to put my life on the line for somebody else. It’s made me look at life completely different. Now it’s just giving her everything that I didn’t have and just trying to provide a decent and very solid life.”
Becoming a lock down corner in the NFL would certainly help provide that decent and solid life.
OLIVER HODGKINSON IS A COLLEGE FOOTBALL WRITER FOR THE TOUCHDOWN. HE ALSO WRITES ON THE NFL FOR THE PRO FOOTBALL NETWORK. YOU CAN HEAR HIS OPINIONS ON ALL THINGS COLLEGE FOOTBALL AS ONE THIRD OF THE COLLEGE CHAPS PODCAST.
Feature Image Credit: deseret.com
Huge thanks to Jaylon Johnson for taking the time out from NFL Combine training to talk to us. Also, to Alexis Ramos and Rebecca Otto at Wasserman.