Maryland cornerback Jeremiah Johnson draws from experience at Suitland High to become leader for Terps


Maryland cornerback Jeremiah Johnson reads poetry at an event last year. The senior has diverse interests and has blossomed into a leader for the Terrapins. (Bill O'Leary/Washington Post)

Jeremiah Johnson says growing up in Forestville and playing at Suitland High gave him a certain “edge,” and it only got sharper in the school’s weight room one November afternoon in 2008. As Johnson lifted weights, his coach, Nick Lynch, told him how important it was to work hard during the offseason. It was the last time Johnson would speak to Lynch, who died in a car accident that New Year’s Eve.

“My mom woke me up and told me she had gotten a call that he had passed. I couldn’t even believe it,” said Johnson, who was a junior at the time. “We were devastated as a team. But in the end we lost him together, and we found each other.”

Johnson was a little-known recruit at the time, a 155-pound-scrapper who had a hard time winning scholarship offers. But he had speed, and wasn’t afraid to hit. Suitland coaches trumpeted his strength and leadership following the death of Lynch. When Maryland became the first college football program to offer Johnson a scholarship, he accepted almost immediately.

“They were interested in him as a football player,” said Suitland Coach Ed Shields, who took over the team after Lynch’s death. “He’s one in a million.”

Four years later, Johnson weighs a solid 195 pounds and is one of the Terrapins’ most experienced defensive backs — an intelligent player who has served on the team’s leadership council for two years and conducts poetry readings during his downtime. And maybe more than ever, he’s got his edge. Injuries kept him off the field for nearly all of his junior season, and he’s been clawing during training camp to get back into playing mode and win a starting role in his final year.

“I’m just happy for him to be back out here playing at the level that he’s playing at. . . . It’s been over a year,” Maryland Coach Randy Edsall said last week. “I thought he was a little rusty the first two practices.”

Johnson had established himself as one of the team’s best cornerbacks as a sophomore, when he started all 12 games and led the team in pass breakups. But he fractured his toe in last season’s opener against Florida International. When he tried to come back late in the season, he suffered a hamstring injury in practice that kept him out all winter and nearly the entire spring.

It was a long, taxing rehabilitation process for Johnson — who after waiting for his toe to heal was back in treatment every day for another lower-body injury. He looked for anything to expedite the process, even crediting the summer heat with helping.

“These past two months have just been a straight grind. I feel the best that I’ve felt in a year,” Johnson said.

He found himself listed as a backup on the team’s preseason depth chart entering camp. He’s in competition for one of the two starting jobs with sophomore William Likely and junior Alvin Hill, with Edsall noting earlier this week Johnson can play on either side.

“He’s a guy we know that can play and play at a high level,” Edsall said. “Hopefully he can stay healthy and continue to get better. He’s competing with Alvin and Will.”

Johnson looks physically stronger on the field than the previous two seasons, and he’s been tested often during 11-on-11 drills throughout the first few days of camp. On the first pass of an up-tempo drill on Tuesday, Johnson broke up a pass while guarding wide receiver Marcus Leak. He sprung to his feet after and trotted back into formation with pep in his step. It was almost as if he was back at Suitland as a thin, undersized safety trying to earn a scholarship again.

“Coming into my senior year, man, I’m just blessed to have another opportunity because that could have been my last year. A lot of people don’t get an opportunity to come back, and I do, so I’m definitely looking forward to it,” Johnson said.

Shields still references Johnson’s name as a guiding light for his Suitland players from time to time. Not very many high school kids lose their coach before their senior season and then find their way into the starting rotation on a Division I football team, he said.

“I tell them, ‘The reason he’s up there is because when Maryland came calling, he was ready,’” Shields said. “I know Coach Lynch would be very proud of him.”

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