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JUCO detour helps Johnson savor football journey

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Jermaine Johnson had opportunities to sign with a Division I program out of high school, but he would have to redshirt. If he went to a junior college, Johnson would have the chance to play right away.

Johnson made the short-term sacrifice by attending Independence (Kan.) Community College and it is a decision that paid off in the long term.

“I was always a pretty great player – at one point I was the best player in Minnesota,” Johnson said of his high school career. “Grades got the best of me and, obviously, I had to pay that price. Coach Jason Brown, he ended up contacting me, I had an opportunity to go to numerous Division I colleges, but I’d have to sit out in the first semester and then get my scholarship after that. I was gonna do that because I didn’t want to go to junior college. 

“And then Coach Brown called me and he said, ‘If you come play here, you’ll be the best player in the nation.’ And then he said, ‘You’ll be able to choose anywhere you want to go.’ And that’s what happened. I think it worked out great for me. And I think I’m right where I’m supposed to be at right now.”

Johnson’s journey has taken him from Eden Prairie, Minn., to Independence, Kan., to Athens, Ga., to Tallahassee. It hasn’t been the easiest of paths but it has also given Johnson a panoramic view of life, making sacrifices and appreciating the opportunities to play football.

“I played 18 months in Independence, Kan., in the middle of nowhere,” Johnson said. “So there was a point where I was at the bottom of the bottom, and I was wishing to be in their shoes. And I always say that there’s guys wishing that they can be where you are, wishing in the middle of nowhere with no money, no clothes, nothing to eat, like they’re wishing they can have that. So I just bring stories like that up from where I came from. And from that perspective, I think it always keeps myself humble and hopefully it humbles them.”

Johnson exudes confidence. But he also carries humility that reminds him of how far he has come since leaving Eden Prairie, Minn., in 2017.

‘Proud of how he developed’

Junior college players have been valuable additions to Division I rosters through the years and play an important part of FSU’s history. It’s clear coach Mike Norvell feels the same, tapping into the JUCO pipeline at Memphis and a few times early on at FSU. 

In high school, Johnson was 6-foot-6 and 225 pounds. He looked the part while playing the part on the field — as a wide receiver but notably defensive end — and it wasn’t hard to see his talent.

“I think he has really developed and matured in his journey,” Eden Prairie coach Mike Grant told the Osceola. “He was actually a really quiet kid in high school. Wasn’t super vocal. We’re proud of how he’s developed. I think every kid has a different journey, everybody’s got a different path.

“He went off to JUCO and everything I heard for those coaches and coaches that recruited him was he just had an outstanding couple of years, not only on the field but academically. Just turned things around and just became focused and I think that’s what you’re seeing now.”

Johnson was part of the Independence CC team that was profiled on Netflix’s “Last Chance U” series in season three. In two years at Independence, Johnson racked up 96 tackles, 19 tackles for loss, 12.5 sacks and four forced fumbles. Brown’s pitch proved accurate as Johnson was viewed as one of the top JUCO players regardless of position.

“He made the best of going to a junior college and doing the right thing,” said Grant, the son of former Minnesota Vikings coach Bud Grant. “Because you get a lot of kids, they go to junior college and they don’t get it done. He went and did a great job academically in junior college and then you have choices. … It’s a great story. I really do think that everybody matures and sees that light at a different time.”

Johnson then played two seasons at Georgia, finishing with 16 tackles and five sacks in 2020. His father, Jay Johnson, told the Athens (Ga.) Banner Herald that his son is “a Dawg at heart” but playing time was a concern. “You can’t get to the league without film and the constant rotation for no reason, that’s not going to do it, ” Jay Johnson told the Banner Herald.

Can Johnson jump start FSU’s pass rush?

It didn’t take Johnson long to find a new home at FSU in December. Johnson went in the portal and he said in his first official interviews at FSU in January that Norvell was the first phone call he received.

The Seminoles needed pass rush help, that much was obvious after generating just nine sacks in nine games. But they also needed experience and leadership.

“He understood the expectation,” Norvell said. “And that’s something that I appreciated is that one of the first meetings that we had. He gathered the defensive line, and he talked about that this was not just about him. It was about us. It was about what we’re trying to do and his responsibility that he felt necessary to be able to pour into the guys that he lines up side by side. And he’s had to live that out. I’m extremely hard on Jermaine. He’ll tell you. It’s a daily challenge of how he gets pushed because the standard that I expect him to have, just like the guys within our program, this is not something that just because you achieve in one area that the standard lessens. It is it is across the board. With big shoes comes big responsibility.”

Johnson welcomes the responsibility. He wants to be an effective pass rusher but seems just as concerned for how he sets a tone with defensive linemen. When asked about the defensive linemen who have stood out to him in the spring and offseason workouts, Johnson mentions Keir Thomas, Dennis Briggs, Robert Cooper and Fabien Lovett. But he also says “we have a bunch of defensive freaks here.” If FSU’s defense is to take a step forward in 2021, it will be because of a spark created by Johnson and the pass rush.

Though he has only been on campus since January, Johnson says he can feel the camaraderie building among players. The theme of the offseason is similar to Norvell’s mantra: Work.

“There’s no shortcuts. There’s no way around it. … I feel like we’re just making hard work the theme. So just having everybody buy in to the little things, buying into the culture that we’re building here. It’s showing and I can’t wait to put it on display.”

Johnson smiled when asked about Notre Dame and the opener on Sept. 5 at Doak Campbell Stadium. It will be his first game in garnet and gold and in Tallahassee.

“I’m so excited sometimes I have to calm down, I don’t want to psych myself out or whatever,” Johnson said. “But I can’t wait. Not only just for myself but mostly for this team and for this organization, this program. We work so hard day in and day out. And I don’t think anyone understands what’s going to happen but us. We just keep our heads down, we stay grinding.”

For Johnson, his path was an indirect one from the Minneapolis suburbs to Tallahassee. His hard work in the classroom and on the field at junior college has set him on the path to play in the SEC and ACC (and maybe next the NFL?). It’s not the path you draw up as a kid playing football. But it’s Johnson’s path and he’s learned valuable lessons about life, football and himself along the way.

“A lot of times I like to say the journey is more important than outcome,” Johnson said. “A lot of times people just see the outcome, whether it’s good or bad. But there’s always a journey behind everything. And I’m just very thankful and blessed that I got to be on the journey that I was on.”