When news broke on Feb. 24 that Jaylon Johnson played most of last season with a torn right labrum, it was nothing short of a revelation.
As a junior cornerback last fall at the University of Utah, the Fresno, Calif., native was named an All-American after ranking third in the Pac-12 with 11 pass breakups. His two interceptions in 13 starts included a 39-yard pick-six at Washington that helped shift momentum in that win in Seattle, while standing as arguably the Utes’ biggest play of the season.
The injury reportedly happened at some point in September, making the strong season Johnson had even more remarkable. Now consider that Johnson says the injury occurred even earlier than that.
“It happened sometime in 2018, not sure which game or practice, I really didn’t know what was wrong,” Johnson told The Salt Lake Tribune on Thursday morning via phone, eight days removed from surgery to repair the torn right labrum. “Going into fall camp, there was a tackling drill and the shoulder just went numb, it was really loose. Talking to the trainer, we knew something was wrong, but I fought through it. I wasn’t too concerned with an MRI or an X-ray.
“I wanted to do whatever I could and tough it out. I wasn’t going to mess up what I had planned, I had a lot on the line.”
Johnson’s long-held plan was to graduate from college in three years, then declare for the NFL Draft as a junior. Johnson finished college in three years, receiving his business degree in September, but a torn right labrum could have easily derailed the football end of things.
Johnson’s father, John, always held to the old tough-guy football mantra, “Are you injured, or are you hurt?” Injured means you can’t play, hurt means you can play. Johnson and the training staff determined he was just hurt, so his 2019 season went on without a hitch.
When Utah spring practice opened on March 2, Utes coach Kyle Whittingham was asked if Johnson taking a redshirt last fall was ever up for consideration. The short answer is no, Johnson taking a redshirt was never on the table, which Johnson echoed on Thursday.
“That wasn’t going to happen unless it was physically impossible to play,” Johnson said. “Playing through pain, it’s something I’ve always done. I felt it constantly but tried to forget about it. It was just about being tough. It was more of a mental game at that point, trying to keep my head strong.”
The 13 games Johnson played in last season included the Pac-12 championship game against Oregon, which was followed by Johnson opting out of the Alamo Bowl against Texas. Whether Johnson was injured when he decided to skip the Alamo Bowl is irrelevant. In recent years, NFL Draft prospects, especially those projected to be selected on the first or second day, skipping non-major bowl games has become more common.
With no more games to play after the Pac-12 title game, Johnson could have opted for surgery then, but wanted to compete at the NFL Scouting Combine earlier this month. He and his agent, Wasserman’s Doug Hendrickson, prepared as such, but knowing there would be questions about the shoulder, got out in front of it.
Renowned orthopedic surgeon Peter Millet drafted a letter to all 32 NFL teams before the Combine, stating that he recommended surgery for Johnson and that he should be ready for the start of training camp in July.
Johnson ran the full gamut of Combine drills, running a 4.5-second 40-yard dash and bench-pressing 225 pounds 15 times despite the shoulder. The NFL gave Johnson a draft grade of 6.43, which projects him as a potential starter sooner rather than later.
Johnson, depending on which mock draft you trust, is projected to be picked as high as the middle of the second round next month.
“The timetable is four months, should be healthy for training camp, ready to go for the season,” Johnson said. “Going into camp, going into my first NFL season, I didn’t want to deal with pain and have that hinder my performance. This is a different chapter of football and I wanted to give myself the best chance to perform.”