In a moment that felt like more like two years than two seconds, Jaylen Johnson’s heart sank to his knees.
Johnson had held a scholarship offer from Ohio State ever since June 15, when the three-star safety prospect took over at a one-day camp hosted by the Buckeyes and earned the strong impressions he got from coaches like Al Washington and Jeff Hafley.
During his ensuing junior season at Cincinnati La Salle High School, his level of play continued rising, and he remained patient with his college commitment decision that was mainly coming down to Ohio State, Cincinnati, Kentucky and Penn State.
Johnson had originally been married to the idea of committing on his father’s birthday, May 22, as a symbolic gesture and gift to Jarvis – the man who has meant the world to him and a former linebacker at Northern Illinois, one who has passed down some needed advice and teachings on how Jaylen should handle himself during the recruiting process.
After eventually pushing back that commitment date to July 29, he soon realized patience might be a virtue but also a dangerous game of chance. That feeling set in three weeks ago, as he watched the Buckeyes lose to Clemson in the College Football Playoff semifinal, and it was time for the Ohioan to let people know he was staying home.
“I was thinking about it, and I heard this game is a numbers game, and I was thinking I didn’t want anybody taking my spot at Ohio State and them reversing my offer because it’s one of my favorite schools,” Johnson told Eleven Warriors. “After that loss to Clemson, it really sparked me. I could see myself playing there in big games, making big plays for this team, so I might as well make it my official now. The world wants to know. Why wait?
“Because I knew some certain kids who, if Ohio State would’ve won, I know some DBs in my class that would’ve committed and tried to influence the coaches to let them commit. So I decided to make my decision now so nobody could take my spot and I could finally play where I wanna play at.”
But then he hit a snag. At first, he had trouble getting in contact with the Ohio State coaches – as they recovered from the aftermath of the loss, were busy with travel schedules or went on family vacations. By the time Johnson’s calls were returned, it was three days after the Clemson game, and when he tried to commit, they told him they weren't accepting his commitment yet. The coaches had to talk about it amongst themselves first.
So Johnson waited … waited … and then waited some more.
He said he wasn’t nervous. But an entire week went by, and Johnson’s commitment had not been accepted.
“This year I’ve only gotten beat once on the deep ball. Teams don’t really like passing the ball when they play against me.”– Ohio State 2021 DB commit Jaylen Johnson
And, still, those weren’t the moments where Johnson thought his dream was crushed. That moment came on Jan. 7.
It was a Tuesday afternoon, and Johnson was pushing through an offseason leg workout, grinding at La Salle’s weight room when Lancers head coach Pat McLaughlin called him into his coaches’ office. He had some bad news for his star safety.
McLaughlin was on a call with Washington, and he handed the phone to Johnson. As Johnson recalls, the linebackers coach with whom he has established one of his tightest relationships told him, “‘Man, bad news. Jaylen, I’m sorry that we couldn’t really do this for you. You know I’ve always kept it real with you from the jump, and I wanted to let you know …”
“... we’ve accepted your commitment. So are you committed to THE Ohio State?’”
“‘Yeah, Coach,’” Johnson recalls saying. “‘You know I am.’”
That moment of potential heartbreak was quickly long gone, and the reality set in for Johnson no less than a half-second later.
“I was so,” Johnson says, pausing, “that was like a kid’s Christmas gift on their first Christmas. As soon as he said, ‘we’ve accepted your commitment,’ I started going off. I started jumping up and down. It was just a dream come true.”
It may have taken longer than he anticipated or wanted, but Johnson was – still obviously is – ecstatic about fulfilling his dream. And the Buckeyes were happy, eventually realizing a mistake they may have been making by not taking Johnson – one that could have come back to bite them years from now if they offered an in-state prospect early, chose to deny his commitment, let him walk away to another program and seen Johnson turn into a playmaker years down the road.
Johnson became the fifth in-state player and first defensive back to commit to the Buckeyes' recruiting class of 2021 as they continue their inside-out recruiting approach by landing another top prospect from Ohio, one who is bordering on becoming one of the state’s top 10-ranked players and one who certainly plays like it already.
Johnson isn’t getting much attention stars-wise, and he doesn’t have a noteworthy offer sheet, partially because he’s a lower-ranked prospect who was offered by Ohio State early on, which might have played a part in other programs backing off of him or not pursuing him altogether.
But the 6-foot-1, 200-pound safety (he’s listed at 205 or 210 in some places, but Johnson says he’s lost a little bit of weight) brings a championship pedigree from La Salle, where he emerged as a leader of a Lancers’ defense that allowed 13.1 points per game with three shutouts during a 13-2 season. He claimed Division II Second Team All-State honors by racking up 61 tackles, 17 pass breakups, a forced fumble and an interception – not bad considering opposing offensive coordinators routinely game planned around him and made it an emphasis to not challenge him.
On Dec. 30, Johnson was named to La Salle’s All-Decade team, 25 days after he helped the Lancers capture their fourth state championship in the last six seasons in a 34-17 win over Massillon Washington High School.
That game was about as good of a microcosm as you’re going to see for what Johnson is going to bring to Ohio State’s campus when he arrives in 2021, as he helped hold a run-heavy Tigers squad to just 82 yards on the ground to the Lancers’ 337 yards, and after allowing the Tigers 17 first-half points, helped lead a shutout effort in the second half.
He also helped cover Jayden Ballard, a fellow 2021 Buckeye commit, and Andrew Wilson-Lamp – a receiver duo seen as arguably the best in Ohio. Ballard and Wilson-Lamp had first-half touchdown receptions of 38 yards and 69 yards, respectively, but were not effective when Johnson was in coverage.
“They didn’t try me,” Johnson said. “They didn’t come to my side at all. They had me playing a free man, just roaming the field everywhere. They had me playing free man for the state championship because their run game was good. They wanted me in the box, and they knew if they caught us in our base defense, we wouldn’t be able to stop the run. Most of the teams we play are passing teams.
“When we play against the run(-heavy) teams, we go to our stack formation, and I just roam the field and play me.”
Recruited as a combo defensive back-outside linebacker, Johnson seems to fit the mold of the bullet position for the Buckeyes – if they revert back to what their original vision for what that position is supposed to be. Even if the Bullet doesn’t take shape as it was originally intended, Ohio State believes Johnson can play both spots – fast enough to guard receivers, physical enough to guard tight ends and play the run game.
He might not fit any one position seamlessly, but he’s a fast, versatile athlete with a winner’s pedigree, and he already has a similar physical stature to the Buckeyes' most recent starting safety, Jordan Fuller.
Johnson said Ohio State could see him possibly becoming another version of Fuller, but there’s another player whom Johnson has his eyes on emulating.
“This year I’ve only gotten beat once on the deep ball. Teams don’t really like passing the ball when they play against me,” Johnson said. “How I see myself in Ohio State’s defense is like Shaun Wade. Teams don’t like throwing the ball to Shaun Wade. They like running at him, and he comes up and makes plays. When they do throw at Shaun Wade, he can play in coverage, so that’s where I look at myself.”
Obviously, he has a long way to go before reaching Wade’s caliber. Though a bit smaller than Johnson will be once he leaves La Salle (Wade was 6-foot-1, 177 pounds as a senior), he was the No. 2-ranked cornerback in the country in the 2017 recruiting class behind Jeff Okudah. He was a top-20 national recruit. Johnson is not Wade and won’t come into the program with a recruiting profile similar to Wade, who had his choice on which Division I powerhouse he wanted to join.
That doesn't mean Johnson – who toughly played through a torn labrum in his left shoulder this past season – can’t eventually turn into a productive, possibly great player and a guy who Buckeye fans love watching.
It’s become quite a theme that Ohio State is recruiting good-character kids, and it seems like we write about it at least three times a week. But the program is getting another one here in Johnson.
Respect and discipline – between the lines and outside of them – are synonymous with Johnson. That’s been instilled in him since he was little, when as a 4-year-old, Johnson had to move in with his grandparents, Janet Ferguson and Jarvis Johnson II, for about a four-year stretch when Johnson’s dad moved to Alabama for a business job.
Janet was a teacher, and Jarvis II was in the Air Force, and they kept Johnson well-disciplined as a kid.
“Respect is always the number one thing in our house,” says Johnson, a consistent user of “yes, sir” and “no, sir” throughout his interview with Eleven Warriors. “Growing up, it was just me and my dad, and then my dad had moved to Alabama, and I had to stay with my grandparents for a while. It was just like, everything I had to get, I had to earn it until my dad got back, and I still had to earn it then. But then, it was like things were a little easier.”
Johnson’s dad returned to Ohio for a new job when Johnson was 8 years old, and Johnson moved back in with him. His dad’s been able to see his son grow mentally and physically – the two often train together in the offseason – and become a state champion at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium in Canton, where Johnson took time to approach Ballard postgame and told him “‘you’re an amazing kid. You’re a great athlete.’”
“I said, ‘don’t let this game affect how you play next year,’” Johnson said.
A little more than a month later, it was Jarvis’ time to give Johnson some encouraging words. Johnson texted his dad to let him know Ohio State had officially accepted his commitment, and this was Jarvis’ response, as read by Johnson:
“Go with your head, not your heart and congratulations,” Johnson says. “And then he said to me, ‘Make plays this year in camp and then the season right away. Go up to Ohio State, build upon it. Get bigger, faster, smarter, stronger than ever before. Get your stuff locked down and get ready for the season. This is a big one, kid.’”