Utah’s defensive players were running back and forth across the field after the 13th session of spring practice. One athlete consistently sprinted ahead of the pack. No. 1′s presence in front of his teammates was symbolic, in multiple ways.
Ute cornerback Jaylon Johnson was an everyday star of the spring. Johnson’s level of effort in routine drills — aside from the more formal offense vs. defense competition — was remarkable to witness. Utah’s top NFL prospect in 2020, when he will be eligible as a junior, clearly is not satisfied with his ability.
“I have to push myself to be better,” Johnson said. “I even make up lies in my head to push myself … something to give me an extra push, an extra edge.”
So he tells himself myths such as “people don’t respect me,” even though that’s obviously not true. Here’s some material for Johnson to ignore: 247Sports recently ranked him the best cornerback in college football and the No. 12 defensive player overall. The website listed Johnson as the No. 19 pick in a 2020 mock draft; another list made him No. 26.
2020 NFL DRAFT
The Tribune's early projections for Utah's 2020 class (*-junior in 2019)
Rounds 1-2 – Jaylon Johnson*, CB.
Rounds 2-3 – Bradlee Anae, DE; Leki Fotu, DT.
Rounds 3-4 – Zack Moss, RB.
Rounds 5-6 – Julian Blackmon, FS; John Penisini, DT.
Rounds 6-7 – Darrin Paulo, OT; Manny Bowen, LB; Tyler Huntley, QB.
That evaluation makes Johnson a possible first round pick in 2020, when Utah is well positioned to challenge the 2017 school record of eight players drafted. The Utes could have matched or exceeded that number during this past weekend’s 2019 draft, if the four players who looked into early entry (defensive linemen Bradlee Anae and Leki Fotu, defensive back Julian Blackmon and running back Zack Moss) had skipped their senior seasons.
So the 2020 draft class starts with those four. Add the likes of defensive tackle John Penisini, offensive tackle Darrin Paulo, linebacker Manny Bowen and quarterback Tyler Huntley, and the Utes could have a record haul — starting with Johnson, who soon will have earned his degree.
Johnson's personal timetable calls for him to be NFL-ready after his junior season. That's why he competed so aggressively all spring, when he could have coasted. Whenever cornerbacks coach Sharrieff Shah gave practice opportunities to other players, Johnson would complain, “You're stealing my reps.”
Shah said, “The thing about him is what you see is truly who he is. I'm telling you, he gets upset at me if he comes out. Things he does in practice are what he does on Saturdays. … He loves working; he loves the grind.”
In front of the other players, defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley told Johnson, “I just love the way you practice.”
That's Johnson's form of leadership, explaining his effort in those post-practice sprints. “I guess I'm the standard,” he said, hoping that his determination to improve can “carry guys along with me.”
Junior cornerback Javelin Guidry, another NFL prospect, said of Johnson’s influence, “We just try to compete every day to see who can make the most plays.”
Johnson added, “I'm just trying to prove to myself every day that I'm the best. And I still have things I can improve on, things to get better at. … I don't think I have any weaknesses; of course, I can improve on every aspect.”
There is more to do. Johnson’s signature games of 2018 came when he faced receivers JJ Arcega-Whiteside of Stanford and Dillion Mitchell of Oregon, each drafted this past weekend. But he was among the Ute defenders responsible for allowing three touchdown receptions by Arizona State’s N’Keal Harry, a first-round pick. In 2019, Johnson’s biggest tests should come from USC’s Tyler Vaughns in Utah’s Pac-12 opener and Colorado’s Laviska Shenault, a first-round prospect, in the regular-season finale.
Including safety Marquise Blair, taken Friday by the Seattle Seahawks, the Utes have had five defensive backs drafted in the second round in 13 years. Johnson is capable of becoming Utah’s first defensive player picked in the first round since tackle Star Lotulelei in 2013 (and the second defender taken that high since end Luther Elliss in 1995).
Johnson is motivated to join that list, saying he will try to “perfect my craft … as long as I’m playing here.”
And his drive is contagious, in Utah’s secondary and beyond. Ute receiver Demari Simpkins thanked Johnson for his ability to “expose my weaknesses” in practice.