Harty: Jaleel Johnson isn’t your typical Iowa football player
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Jaleel Johnson took a path that few have to be an Iowa football player.
It’s not where he came from that’s unusual, but rather how he became a Hawkeye and what he turned down in order to do so.
Johnson is one of few players on the Iowa team to have rejected a bunch of power five scholarship offers to sign with Iowa.
A four-star recruit from the Chicago suburb of Lombard, Ill., Johnson said thanks, but no thanks to the likes of Michigan State, Michigan, Wisconsin, Tennessee, Arizona, Vanderbilt, Minnesota and Illinois among others because he preferred what he described as a family-oriented atmosphere at Iowa.
“It was pretty much that the coaching staff was very family oriented as opposed to other places like Michigan State or Illinois or Indiana,” Johnson said Tuesday. “I didn’t feel like they were family-oriented programs as opposed to Iowa. It really made me feel a togetherness.”
Even with all of his press clippings, Johnson had to wait his turn at Iowa. He was redshirted as a true freshmen in 2012 and then played behind Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat for his first two seasons. Johnson waiting patiently for both of them to graduate, knowing that his time would come this season.
“I wasn’t really down because I knew what to expect coming into college,” Johnson said. “I knew I was going to be redshirted. But that was more motivation for me to just come in and keep working hard and it all would pay off.”
It has paid off so far with the 6-foot-4, 310-pound Johnson having been a disruptive force in Iowa’s first two games against Illinois State and Iowa State.
“He’s been doing really well,” said senior defensive end Nate Meier. He’s been doing his job and getting to where he’s supposed to be.”
The 2-0 Hawkeyes are allowing just 49 rushing yards per game heading into Saturday’s prime-time matchup with Pittsburgh, and part of the credit has to go to Johnson and the other new starter at defensive tackle, sophomore Nathan Bazata.
Together, they have helped to ease the concern of having to replace Davis and Trinca-Pasat by performing well in the first two games.
“It wasn’t really a worry,” Johnson said of trying to replace Davis and Trinca-Pasat. “All we had to do is just come out and play and show the crowd that we’re here. With Carl and Louie being gone, everybody watched those guys and they respected those guys. And with them being gone, and with me and Nate stepping up, all we had to do was go out and show them that we could play at this level.”
Johnson was maybe too eager to show that against Iowa State last Saturday as he twice was penalized for being offsides in the first half. But much like his team, Johnson regrouped at halftime and performed much better in the second half.
"I was definitely anxious," Johnson said. "It was a huge game. But we came out in the second half and I had to fix a few things."
Two games certainly don’t make a season, but is enough time to make an impression. And right now, Johnson is showing that he might be as good as advertised.
He might be the latest in what is turning into a long line of defensive tackles who have excelled for the Hawkeyes under Ferentz, a list that includes Davis, Trinca-Pasat, Colin Cole, Jonathan Babineaux, Karl Klug and Mike Daniels, all of whom are either on a current NFL roster or an NFL practice squad.
“That’s very motivating because I know I can be there and perform at that same level,” Johnson said of the Hawkeye defensive linemen who are now playing in the NFL. “I just have to do like Mike Daniels and those guys told me; keep on working and things will be good.”
Johnson had what he described as a very beneficial conversation with Daniels last season when Daniels returned to Iowa City to be the honorary captain for the Northwestern game. Daniels encouraged him to work hard at everything in life. And he served as inspiration, being a member of the Green Bay Packers.
“That really helped me out a lot for the rest of the season and going into the summer time,” Johnson said of Daniels’ advice.
Johnson also hears from Davis on a regular basis. And with that comes more advice and inspiration from another former Hawkeye defensive tackle who is now in the NFL. Davis is a rookie with the Baltimore Ravens after being selected in the third round of the 2015 NFL draft last April.
“I talk to Carl a lot,” Johnson said. “He tells me to just keep working hard. He’s doing the same thing in Baltimore. Just keep working hard and keep persevering and things will be good.”
Johnson has certainly benefitted from sound advice and from an environment in which hard work is expected.
But he also deserves praise for staying the course, for being patient, and for trusting the Iowa coaches.
We live in a time in which transferring at the first sign of trouble is almost routine in the quest for instant gratification.
Johnson could’ve bailed on the Hawkeyes when it became apparent that he probably wouldn’t start or even play on a regular basis until his fourth year in the program.
But the same family atmosphere that attracted Johnson to Iowa has kept him here.
Johnson liked Iowa from the beginning, but the Hawkeyes had some catching up to do with Michigan State in the recruiting process.
“They were my first offer,” Johnson said of Michigan State. “So I was heavily into Michigan State until Iowa came in. I was interested in Iowa. So I came in and looked at Iowa and I was really, really impressed with everything about Iowa.
“And that made me realize maybe Michigan State isn’t the place for me. So I just cut off all ties with them and just focused more on coming to Iowa.”
That’s what makes his path so unusual because there aren’t many players on the current Iowa roster who had a scholarship offer from Michigan State.
Iowa also has 23 players in its 2016 recruiting class, but none of them currently holds a Michigan State offer.
That’s not a criticism, but rather another way to show that Johnson is unique.
He had options that most of his teammates didn’t have coming out of high school. Most of the former Hawkeyes who are now in the NFL, including the defensive tackles, also were different than Johnson because they, too, were lightly recruited.
Daniels picked Iowa over Villanova after receiving a scholarship offer from the Hawkeyes late in the recruiting process.
There is something cool about the way in which Ferentz has helped to turn a lot of nobodys into a lot of somebodys while at Iowa.
But a program like Iowa also needs to land the so-called blue chip recruit every now and then in order to stay competitive, players like former tight end Tony Moeaki and former defensive end Adrian Clayborn fall into that category. They both picked Iowa despite having multiple power five offers and then went on to make first-team all-Big Ten.
It’s way too early to know where Johnson’s path is headed as a Hawkeyes. But we’re starting to see why he took the path he did to get here.