Utah freshman cornerback Jaylon Johnson always seemingly has been fast enough, quick enough, strong enough and tenacious enough to lock up an opponent one-on-one. It didn’t matter if that was on the field or basketball court.
Utes cornerbacks coach Sharrief Shah has no doubt Johnson, a former high school point guard, could’ve played college basketball at a Power Five conference level. Johnson received interest from basketball recruiters while playing at Central High School in Fresno, Calif.
“I was actually going to play basketball and quit football, and then I had a change of heart and stuck with football,” Johnson said. “It ended up working out for me.”
Johnson’s decision has worked out brilliantly for the Utes so far. He’s played in every game this season and started the Pac-12 opener at Arizona. Utes coach Kyle Whittingham considers Johnson one of three starters at cornerback, along with redshirt junior Casey Hughes and sophomore Julian Blackmon.
Utah redshirt freshman men’s basketball player Chris Seeley and Johnson played basketball together since Johnson was in eighth grade. Seeley said he didn’t know Johnson played football after both were in high school together, but he believes Johnson could’ve played basketball in the Pac-12.
“Of course, for sure,” Seeley said. “With his athleticism, strength, he’s crazy. I think he could have did something in this league.”
Johnson’s senior year of high school was the first time he can remember not playing both sports. The U.S. Army All-American Bowl participant was rated a four-star recruit by ESPN, Scout and Rivals. The 6-foot, 181-pound Johnson originally committed to stay in-state and play for USC, but Utah’s recruiting efforts, which were spearheaded by Shah and started more than a year before signing day, changed Johnson’s mind.
Johnson will have friends and family in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on Saturday, but there also likely will be a few bitter USC fans. He grinned as he said he expects it to be “hostile.”
Johnson, a true freshman who didn’t arrive on campus until this summer, jumped right into the fire and regularly matched up with Utes star wide receiver and graduate transfer Darren Carrington II during preseason drills.
“I love Jaylon,” said Carrington, who once played in a high school all-star game with Johnson’s older brother John. “He’s definitely going to be a top corner in the nation whenever he comes out. Me going against him earlier in summer is because I told him I’m going to get him ready to get that freshman All-American. I just wanted to boost his confidence up and make sure he’s ready because he can play with the best of them.”
Johnson has continued to impress since the first day of camp, when both defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley and Whittingham sang his praises. Johnson has one interception and four pass breakups this season. Through the first four games, Pro Football Focus rated him second among “lockdown corners” in the Pac-12 with a minimum of 40 snaps in coverage.
“He’s been blessed with tremendous physical attributes that he just needed a few hundred reps, close to a thousand to just get used to the speed,” Shah said. “That has slowed down for him. Everything else is really good because he’s such an intuitive kid. He’s smart, a really really smart kid.”
When Shah first made a recruiting visit to Johnson’s house, the two sat in the living room engaged in the first of many conversations about defense ranging from coverages to the smaller details such as where Johnson’s eyes would focus in certain situations and what route combinations he’d expect in particular formations and scenarios. Shah came away impressed.
Even with his aptitude for the game, Johnson was taken aback by the complexity of the Utes defensive scheme. With his physical ability, the primary question about Johnson in Shah’s words was “Could he grasp it? Could he digest it, the enormity of it and how fast we make modifications?”
“This is 10 times more [studying],” Johnson said about his film habits now compared to high school. “You’re looking at all 11 people instead of just the person you’re lined up against. There’s definitely way more to study in terms of route combinations, tendencies and stuff like that. I never looked at the quarterback. I never looked at the running back in high school.”
Johnson has proven himself up to the tasks thus far. Yes, tasks plural. Utes defensive backs don’t just study film, they’ve got to pass tests to assure they’ve absorbed the material. Shah gives assignments and makes players turn in reports so he can review them before they step on the practice field that day.
“I tell his mother and father all the time, he’s such a good kid,” Shah said. “To have been such a highly recruited prospect and have such a beautiful disposition like ‘Coach, I haven’t done anything. I need to work so much harder.’ … I’m excited that he is willing to work, willing to understand, willing to try to digest everything that we’re feeding him.”
Height • 6-foot
Weight • 181 pounds
Position • Cornerback
Class • Freshman
Hometown • Fresno, Calif.
Great get for the Utes • Scout ranked Johnson the sixth-best cornerback in his high school class, while Rivals.com ranked him eighth. ... He was selected to compete in Nike’s 7-on-7 camp/competition “The Opening”, which annual features the top high school skill position players from across the country. ... Johnson has recorded a 4.47-second laser-timed 40-yard dash as well as a 38-inch vertical leap. ... The Central High Fall Male Athlete of the Year as a senior, his brother, John began his collegiate career as a defensive back at UCLA and now plays as a graduate transfer for Fresno State.