Johnson aims to bring leadership, pass rush to FSU

The conversation stood out to Jermaine Johnson for a few reasons. First, the phone call came from Mike Norvell — not an assistant coach or member of the off-field staff. Second, Florida State’s coach delivered a message of what was needed — character and leadership.

“He let me know right off the bat, that obviously I was talented, I can do some things, but that he did make some calls. He called around, just a character check,” Johnson said on Friday in his first interview with writers at FSU. “Make sure everything on that end was straight. … That was his main point going through the whole thing, bringing the right guys in to get this thing moving in the right direction.

“It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, we were lacking here, we need you here.’ It was, ‘This is the kind of person that you are, this is the kind of character that I hear that you have. And that fits well with the program. And I think we can do special things together.’ And I agree.”

Yes, sacks and putting pressure on the quarterback are important. And, yes, Florida State hasn’t done much of that the last two seasons, producing just nine sacks in 2020. The Seminoles lose some big pieces of the defensive front, including Janarius Robinson, Joshua Kaindoh and Marvin Wilson.

It’s obvious that FSU needs a pass rusher and leadership as Norvell moves into year 2. Johnson is a defensive end who brings starting experience in the SEC, recording 16 tackles, 11 quarterback hurries and four sacks in seven games in 2020 at Georgia. He missed a few games due to injury but started three games last fall and his ability to make a quarterback uncomfortable clearly caught Norvell’s attention.

“Jermaine is a dynamic pass rusher with huge upside,” Norvell said earlier this month. “He has the potential to be a showcase figure in our defense as we move forward.”

The 6-foot-5, 250-pound Johnson is a big addition. He along with South Carolina transfer Keir Thomas, likely a defensive tackle, will help revamp a defensive line that also gets an influx of newcomers in freshmen Joshua Farmer, an early enrollee, as well as Patrick Payton, George Wilson, Shambre Jackson and Byron Turner Jr.

Johnson may not be the next Brian Burns, an end who delivers double digits in sacks. But he will set a tone for the group. 

“You just got to come in and work, you got to earn a leadership role,” Johnson said. “You got to earn the respect of people. You don’t just walk in somewhere and be like, ‘Yeah, I’m the new kid on the block. This is my show.’ That’s not how it works. You come in, you work, and you guys grow together.”

Johnson recalled watching Dalvin Cook just a few years ago and later was teammates with his brother, James Cook, at Georgia. When asked if FSU’s brand still resonated despite the recent on-field struggles, Johnson said he felt like the Seminoles’ 2013 national championship wasn’t that long ago.

“There’s countless greats to come through this locker room and playing on that field,” Johnson said. “That was a factor. Any time you just say great after great after great to come through this university and, like I said, this program was top notch not so long ago, and it’s still top notch despite winning not so long ago. Culture change and doing everything right off the field, everything else will transition to the field. I strongly believe in that. So does everybody else in this program.”

Johnson has already immersed himself in FSU’s offseason strength and conditioning program, led by Josh Storms. Norvell and the Seminoles’ coaches aren’t allowed to be around, not yet at least by NCAA rule, but Johnson has seen players work hard at Georgia and now FSU. He acknowledges the recent coaching changes but also sees a push forward by the Seminoles in 2021.

“These guys are working their butts off,” Johnson said. “And we all have a common goal. Just take one day at a time, get 1 percent better. And hold everybody to the same standard. That’s the goal. And I feel like, with that goal, moving forward each day at a time, this program, everything will line up, and it will become what we want it to be.”

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