Jeremiah Johnson has become a shutdown cornerback for the Terps

(John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

“Okay, who wants to talk with the shutdown corner?”

The announcement came from the doorway to the Gossett Team House cafeteria, a joking reference to Jeremiah Johnson that contains more than a dash of truth. The sophomore smiled sheepishly, fiddling with his hands while sitting at a round table, saying how he doesn’t care too much for attention from reporters or teammates. Overwhelming at times, it comes with the territory, so he’s dealing with it the best he can. He’d rather let his play on the outside do the talking.

Except cornerbacks are notoriously some of football’s most chatty individuals, the best often confident and cocky, trash-talking opposing wide receivers. It takes a certain type mind-set to split wide, to stand alone on an island, as the cliche goes. Make an interception or break up a pass in a one-on-one scenario, and it provides license to celebrate the individual effort. Get burned, and you’re the goat.

“If you mess up, everyone knows. That gives you more incentive to do your job to the best of your ability,” Johnson said. “You don’t want to let your teammates down, and you don’t want to embarrass yourself in front of a lot of people. When you mess up, everyone knows who it is. It’s a position you’ve got to take very seriously and be very strict in your technique.”

When Johnson joined the Terps in 2010, linebacker Demetrius Hartsfield was often asked to evaluate the incoming class. The best freshman, Hartsfield thought, was Johnson. After sparse playing time as a redshirt freshman in 2011, Johnson might very well be proving his teammate right.

Through seven games, Johnson is tied for third in the ACC with eight pass breakups and is tied for fifth with eight passes defended. Check those statistics again. Every pass Johnson has defended, he’s broken up.

Living on the proverbial island also necessitates a self-imposed amnesia, more so than most positions. Big plays will happen, and even the best get burned. But as soon as one sliver of doubt slips in, Johnson says, you’ve lost it for the game.

Johnson said he keeps trash-talking during games at a minimum, only jawing during practice, occasionally at freshman Stefon Diggs, who always dishes it back. In games, Johnson keeps quiet, focusing on assignments just like receivers. “It’s not like you see in the movies,” he says.

While Hartsfield concurred that Johnson can be soft-spoken in public settings, he said it’s an internal confidence and pride that’s bred success on the outside for the player known as “JJ.”

“If you want to talk about personality, he’s kind of like me. He’s quiet when it comes to the media and being out in this type of environment, but in the locker room, he’s a kid that likes to joke around,” Hartsfield said. “On the field, he talks a lot of trash, plays with a lot of confidence and swagger. The past couple weeks, he’s done a great job at locking down receivers. I’m always one of the first people up to him when he makes a big play, and he always says, ‘Why do they keep throwing at me?’ That’s one of his punch lines that he often says.”

A valid question. Of Johnson’s eight pass breakups, seven have come in the past four weeks, including two against N.C. State. No other Maryland player has more than four. Johnson ranks sixth on the team in tackles, sixth in tackles for a loss and is tied for fifth in sacks.

“He’s a kid that improves every game,” defensive coordinator Brian Stewart said. “He takes notes. He looks at himself on tape, he looks at himself at practice, he takes feedback and criticism well, and it’s not easy when someone tells you you’re doing something wrong or you just get beat. You’re already feeling sorry for yourself. He doesn’t come in with that attitude. He comes in with, ‘Okay, what did I do wrong?’”

These days, it’s very little. Having a lockdown cornerback like Johnson affords Maryland’s defensive line more time for pocket pressure, and gives Stewart the freedom to call more zone blitzes, trusting that Johnson can handle his own on the outside, even against an opponent’s best receiver.

A safety at Suitland High School, Johnson was a second-team All-Met selection in 2009, and was ranked 78th nationally among cornerbacks. He played in just nine games in 2011 as Maryland’s No. 4 cornerback, and finished with five tackles, but has been a pleasant surprise for the Terps, especially in a young secondary.

“The things that JJ has done, he’s worked really hard to hone his craft,” Coach Randy Edsall said. “When you watch him play, he does a good job of preparing and studying. When he sees certain sets, he knows what’s going to be coming. He does a good job of watching receivers and getting their moves down and knowing what they’re going to do. He’s playing with a lot of confidence, and when you have some of the pass breakups he’s made, that builds your confidence. The biggest thing he’s done, to help his level of play, is in terms of how hard he’s prepared.”

Of course, the more pass breakups Johnson gets, the more attention the Forestville resident will draw. Make a couple big plays, and of course people will notice, he says. As for the title of “shutdown corner”?

“I wouldn’t say justifiable, but I’m just dealing with it.”

 

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