The postseason award hardly surprised Utah cornerback Jaylon Johnson. Being recognized by the Pac-12 was “something I expected,” he said, an honor that represented what he’s always done, following his family’s outline for him.
In the words of one parent, “I don't want to say he didn't have a choice, but there were no excuses. There's been a standard set here. It's in my blood. … He's always owned up to that.”
Sure enough, Carmella Johnson's wishes were fulfilled when her son was named to the Pac-12's All-Academic football team.
Jaylon Johnson also made the all-conference first team, as judged strictly by on-field performance. He makes this point clear: Football is Johnson's business. He intends to turn his Utah experience into an NFL career, ideally after his junior season of 2019.
Asked how he may use his business degree, Johnson said, “Honestly, I'm just on the road of trying to go to the NFL right now. When that time comes, I'll have a plan for it.”
His job prospects are promising for 2020 and beyond. Johnson has developed his game even more this season, making four interceptions. His 100-yard return for a touchdown at Stanford was the biggest highlight among many key plays, including the fourth-down deflection that saved a win over Oregon after the coaches assigned him to cover star receiver Dillon Mitchell in the second half.
Having chosen Utah over USC, Johnson said, “I came here for one purpose, and that’s to play early and make an impact, and I’ve done that so far.”
“We knew when we recruited him, we had something special,” said Ute coach Kyle Whittingham.
That has proven true, in multiple ways. Utah cornerbacks coach Sharrieff Shah labels Johnson “a godsend, in all aspects of it.”
Johnson has stayed healthy this season after missing the 2017 Heart of Dallas Bowl due to injury, and has excelled academically, with a 3.62 GPA in business. “I’ve been doing it my whole life — being a student, as my parents raised me to be,” he said.
With a mother as an educator and motivational speaker and his father as a corrections officer, “Between his discipline and her knowledge, I had no choice but to have good grades,” Johnson said. “Coming into college, that was just the expectation, to come here, do my thing on the field and get my degree.”
His two older brothers also were good examples, with John Jr. (who's four years older) having been a good student-athlete at UCLA and Fresno State. Even as a 4-year-old, Jaylon wanted to join in his brother's football games against bigger, older players. “Don't cry,” John Jr. would tell him, “just ball out.”
UTAH VS. NORTHWESTERN
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That explains how the 6-foot Johnson challenged Stanford's taller receivers in October. His mother recalled that childhood story, watching Jaylon face JJ Arcega-Whiteside and Trenton Irwin. She remembers thinking, “Those are some big boys.”
Her son succeeded against them, in another example of his growth in two seasons at Utah. Johnson believes he has “dramatically improved from my freshman year to this year, just becoming more confident in my technique, more aggressive in tackling and being able to make more plays,” he said.
His mother knows he can come across as conceited, recognizing that's any good cornerback's mentality. So she's armed with stories about his heart and tenderness, like the time as a child when he moved her oxygen tubes so he could kiss her in a hospital bed.
And she's relieved to have found a mentor for her son in Shah. Amid his parents' divorce, Jaylon “understood that he needed to grow. He needed some peace in his life,” she said. “Our family dynamic had fallen apart from what he grew up with … Coach Shah was what my son needed. The people directly influencing him were family men, God-fearing men, people that I could entrust my son to.”
Shah said he never promised playing time to Johnson or his family, only that he would be there for him. “There will be times when your son will fall out of love with football,” Shah said. “During those moments, I'l still love him … and I'll help him recommit. This grind is like no other. If you don't love it, it will expose you.”
That can happen, even to committed cornerbacks who do love football and are well-rounded people. It’s a tough position, and Johnson thrives in it.