Jakailin Johnson’s first and only game appearance of his freshman year at Ohio State ended with an injury that would sideline him for the rest of the season.
Making his college debut on the final defensive series of Ohio State’s 59-7 September win over Akron, Johnson fractured his left shoulder while making a hit on a Zips receiver after a catch. As a result, the seven snaps he played in that game would be the only playing time he’d see all year.
That was the first major injury of Johnson’s football career, and it wasn’t easy for him to have to watch from the sidelines for the rest of the year.
“This is the game I love, for real. So not being able to practice and just watching everybody, all my friends and teammates practice, I was kind of messed up,” Johnson said this spring.
Johnson says that drove him to work even harder going into his second year at Ohio State.
“When I got hurt, it was like I went to another whole mode and mindset of just going harder,” Johnson said.
As the third-ranked cornerback and No. 50 overall prospect in the recruiting class of 2021, Johnson was viewed as a potential instant-impact player when he arrived at Ohio State last summer. Instead, it was less heralded recruiting classmate Denzel Burke who became an immediate starter while Johnson took a redshirt.
Even so, Johnson began to draw praise by the end of his redshirt year as a player who was making a good impression on his Ohio State coaches and teammates. That praise continued to come his way this spring as both Ryan Day and new defensive coordinator Jim Knowles lauded Johnson and fellow second-year cornerback Jordan Hancock as two of the most improved Buckeyes from last season to this offseason.
“I just think there's a ton of potential there,” Knowles said in March.
Specifically, Johnson’s speed has stood out to his Ohio State coaches and teammates. Ohio State director of sports performance Mickey Marotti identified Johnson earlier this month as the Buckeyes’ fastest defensive player.
“JK Johnson, we saw on a little board with like our Zebra (speed tracker) that shows all of our times, he hit like 23-something miles per hour,” linebacker Steele Chambers said before the Rose Bowl. “I still don't believe it. But I mean, if it's showing that, he's got to be close to that.”
Johnson has maintained that elite speed while adding weight. He was only 167 pounds when he got hurt but told reporters this spring he is now 185 pounds. Getting bigger and stronger has been a point of emphasis for the 6-foot redshirt freshman, who believes his lack of size played a part in his injury.
“You gotta be on your nutrition like it’s film,” Johnson said. “You can’t lack in one spot and do good in another. You gotta be well-rounded.”
Johnson says the injury also taught him the importance of tackling with proper technique.
“You ain't always gotta make a big hit,” Johnson said. “You can just get them down right there. It don’t always gotta be a big collision.”
“When I got hurt, it was like I went to another whole mode and mindset of just going harder.”– Jakailin Johnson
While Johnson knew the jump from high school to college wouldn’t be easy, he says he didn’t realize just how tough it would be until he actually arrived at Ohio State. Now that he knows, he believes he’ll be prepared for the challenges that come his way as a redshirt freshman.
“At first, it was hard for me because I don't like getting any balls caught on me, so that’s hard,” Johnson said. “But I know in this game, and especially at the level that I'm at now, you're gonna get a few balls caught here and there. But you got to shake it off for the next play.”
Johnson believes he is better now in all aspects of the game than he was when he arrived at Ohio State a year ago.
“I feel like I'm faster. I feel like I'm bigger. I feel like I'm getting out of breaks quicker,” Johnson said. “Just everything from all coverages to everything.”
Going into the summer, Johnson appears likely to be Ohio State’s No. 4 cornerback this season behind Burke, Cameron Brown and Hancock. How much playing time that will lead to could depend on how frequently new Ohio State cornerbacks coach Tim Walton decides to rotate at the position and whether the cornerbacks in front of him on the depth chart stay healthy.
At a minimum, Johnson is in position to be one of Ohio State’s top backup cornerbacks with the potential to earn significant playing time in the rotation if he proves he belongs in it. And he’ll certainly be playing like he has something to prove after losing the opportunity to play last season.
“I'm just trying to get on the field and just show the world what I can actually do,” Johnson said. “It's a lot that people ain’t seen.”
When Johnson gets his opportunities to play this year, he says Ohio State fans are “somebody that’s a competitor, going hard all the time.”
“I’m trying to get after it,” Johnson said.
He knows he has to keep working hard over the summer, though, if he’s going to have the success he wants this fall.
“All you can do is work,” Johnson said. “Whatever you put in, those are going to be your results that you get out. So it's all up to you.”