Jaylen Johnson wasn’t happy with how he finished his high school football career.
After his senior season at Cincinnati’s La Salle High School, Johnson was named as the Greater Catholic League’s co-defensive back of the year while earning first-team all-Ohio honors from MaxPreps. He helped lead the Lancers to the state semifinals, where they lost to Massillon Washington and his soon-to-be Ohio State teammate Jayden Ballard.
Johnson, however, doesn’t believe he deserved any accolades for how he played in 2020.
“My senior year, people say I played good, but in my opinion, I feel like I played horrible,” Johnson told Eleven Warriors last week. “My conditioning wasn’t all the way right. My strength wasn’t there; I was normally getting blocked when I rarely can get blocked. My breaks, my cuts, everything just was all very bad in my opinion. Honestly, I don’t see how I won defensive back of the year in my conference.”
Because there was uncertainty about whether the state of Ohio would even have a high school football season last fall due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Johnson admits he didn’t prepare for the season the way he normally would have. Without knowing whether he’d actually get to play a senior season, Johnson didn’t have the motivation to give his all during his offseason training.
That taught Johnson a valuable lesson, though, as he prepares to start his Ohio State career this summer.
“It taught me to always be ready so I don’t have to get ready,” Johnson said. “And since I’ve been training since December, my numbers are out the roof right now. A normal senior that plays my position would never be able to do the things that I’m doing as of right now.”
Johnson, who is set to arrive at Ohio State on Tuesday to enroll in classes and officially join the Buckeyes, has been working on getting stronger and improving his stamina in training for his freshman year. Through his offseason work in the weight room, which he says has been a big point of emphasis as he’s prepared to head to Columbus, Johnson says he can now bench press 330 pounds, power clean 245 pounds, deadlift 515 pounds and squat 410 pounds.
“This is not high school ball. I’m playing with kids that are my age and older than me at the same time, so I know I have to be physically and mentally prepared,” Johnson said.
The 6-foot-2 defensive back has bulked up to 225 pounds as he prepares to play bullet, Ohio State’s hybrid safety/linebacker position, which he believes will be a perfect fit for his game.
“That’s honestly what I wanted to play, bullet, because I can play in the secondary and I also can play in the box,” Johnson said. “When I think of that position, the first person that comes to my mind is Jamal Adams, who’s one of my favorite safeties in the NFL right now.”
Ranked as the No. 411 overall prospect and No. 29 safety in the recruiting class of 2021, Johnson is the lowest-rated position player in Ohio State’s new crop of freshmen. He says that doesn’t bother him, though, because he knows his own ability.
“Stars are for people who go to camps and how many offers you have. It doesn’t define the person you are, the athlete you are,” Johnson said. “Aaron Donald was a three-star and he’s been a defensive MVP almost every year. Russell Wilson was a three-star; one of the best quarterbacks ever.
“I know what I’m capable of doing. And I know that I can go beyond or be better than what I’m doing now if I continue to work.”
His three-star rating also didn’t bother Ohio State’s coaches, who viewed him as a leader in the recruiting class.
“He’s got a great way of connecting with the other recruits,” Ryan Day said after the Buckeyes signed Johnson in December. “He’s been a glue, to be honest with you, during this whole process, keeping guys together.”
Johnson also knows that all of the freshmen, no matter how highly touted they were as recruits, have to prove themselves all over again now that they’re college players.
“We gotta just come in ready to work,” Johnson said. “We all know that we’re nobodies now. Whatever our high school accolades and accomplishments are don’t mean anything. It’s time to start a new chapter. So that’s how I look at it. I don’t know about their perspective, but that’s how I look at it.”
“I know what I’m capable of doing. And I know that I can go beyond or be better than what I’m doing now if I continue to work.”– Jaylen Johnson on being his own toughest critic
Even though Johnson arrives at Ohio State less heralded than most of the other new freshmen, he could have the opportunity to compete for early playing time. Ronnie Hickman and Craig Young are the frontrunners to play most of the snaps at bullet, while Kourt Williams is also a strong candidate for playing time if he is fully healthy for the fall, but none of them are proven commodities yet.
After watching Ohio State’s pass defense struggle last season, Johnson knows Kerry Coombs and Matt Barnes are looking for new players to step up on the back end of the defense, and he’s motivated to do whatever he can to help the Buckeyes’ defense get back on track.
“I’ve been real focused lately because I know our defensive backfield wasn’t the best that it could be, and I know they still need help and we need help,” Johnson said. “So my vision on my college career is to come in and be the best athlete I can be, and just give the coaches 25/8 every day.”
Johnson, who’s his own toughest critic, knows he still needs to improve to be a successful player for the Buckeyes. Specifically, Johnson knows he needs to work on improving his ball skills and off-man coverage.
If he can get better in those areas, though, he believes he’ll be able to do anything Ohio State asks him to do.
“Those are two things that I have trouble with,” Johnson said. “I can run with anyone. If I can get my hands under you, I can play outside, I can play the slot, I can play linebacker, bullet. (Cover) tight ends, running backs. I just have to practice my off-man and my ball skills, that’s it.
“I can come up, make plays. I can play every coverage. I can read offenses. People tell me, there’s not much stuff that I can’t do.”
Playing for Ohio State has long been a dream for Johnson, and now, he’s motivated to make an impact for the Buckeyes as soon as possible. Most of all, though, Johnson says he wants to follow the example set for him by his father, Jarvis, who also played Division I college football at Northern Illinois.
“What motivates me the most is my father waking up every morning, 6 in the morning, going to work, working his behind off just to provide for me,” Johnson said. “So he really sparks the fire and my fuel to make me the best I can be every day.”