Iowa's Jaleel Johnson closing in on the payday

From Brooklyn to Chicago to Iowa City and now the NFL

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INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. — All of these guys are football samurai. They look for the right fit, hook in with a team and fight before moving on to bigger fortunes.

Iowa defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson’s path to a spot in the NFL Combine began in Brooklyn, N.Y. Well, it really didn’t take off until he moved to Chicago for high school, looking for better academics and, he was honest in his Saturday interview here, more of a football limelight. He started at St. Joseph before moving to Montini Catholic and finishing with a 12-2 season and a state championship.

That’s a lot of moving during high school. Johnson said it was a question that came up in a lot of his interviews with NFL execs.

Why did he make the jump from St. Josephs to Montini?

“The reason why I did it was really because St. Joseph’s at the time wasn’t really a football program,” Johnson said. “It was more basketball and soccer. I just felt like if I really wanted to move on as a football player, I felt like I needed more of a challenge.

“That’s when I looked around for a different program that had good football. That’s when I came across Montini Catholic, which has won multiple championships. That’s when I looked more into it. I called the head coach. The head coach at St. Joseph’s made some phone calls and everything fell into place. That’s when I eventually enrolled at Montini Catholic.”

The NFL people here know everything. That’s why after five seasons at Iowa that included first-team all-Big Ten last season Johnson is answering questions about moving from Brooklyn to Chicago and then high school transfer questions.

If he wanted to move on as a football player, he needed more of a challenge.

Johnson’s best season as a Hawkeye should help with that. He had career highs of 7.5 sacks (tied for seventh in the Big Ten) and 10.0 tackles for loss. (He actually more than doubled his career highs in both stats last season.)

During questions on Saturday, Johnson outlined what Iowa’s defense asks defensive linemen to do and how sacks and tackles for loss are hard to come by within Iowa’s 4-3 scheme and philosophy.

Johnson compared his experience in the Senior Bowl, where he was turned loose to rush the passer, to what he was asked to do at Iowa.

“I feel like as an individual, not playing in a defense where it’s read run first and then pass, I feel like I was able to go out and work on things from a pass rush standpoint (at the Senior Bowl) as opposed to reading a key and then going,” Johnson said. “I felt like I had a lot more freedom to really work as a player and more as a football player.”

Iowa’s defensive philosophy is stop the run, first and foremost. It’s tough to argue it, the Hawkeyes have finished in the top 25 in total defense in each of the last four seasons.

“Yeah, that’s how our defense is. That’s how it’s always been. It’s never going to change,” said Johnson, who trained for the Combine at Exos in Pensacola, Fla. “Me being done with that scheme and that style of defense and working on more of a pass-first type of deal, I felt like now is a way I can show I can stop the run at Iowa and, in the Senior Bowl with what I did against the pass, I think I showed I can do both very well.”

Playing defensive line means so many different things in the NFL. Johnson believes he can fit into any role a team wants.

“It doesn’t matter to me,” he said. “I can play 4-3 or 3-4 defense. 3-technique, 1-technique, 5, 4, it doesn’t really matter. If it’s up front, I can do it.”

Yes, moving from Brooklyn to Chicago and finally to Iowa City, there was some culture shock for Johnson. In a way, Iowa City helped him plug more deeply into a lifestyle that helped get him to the Combine (also, he’s being mentioned as a possible late first- or early second-round draft pick).

“It definitely matured me a lot,” said Johnson, who pledged to have his Combine weight of 316 down before Iowa’s pro day in late March. “Coming out of high school and moving into a college town like Iowa City, there are a lot of temptations going on in that town as far as partying and girls and stuff like that.

“Iowa really taught me if it’s not going to help you as a player or as a person, you really shouldn’t be involved with it. As the years went on, I believed in that. Whatever took away from my game or getting better as a person or a player, I wasn’t involved with it, really.”

And now the samurai is ready to get paid. The NFL dream is in reach.

“What I do at the pro day, what I do at the combine, that’s what’s going to get me drafted,” Johnson said. “As of right now, I’m hearing first and early second, that’s all good, but my mindset right now is really attacking this combine and pro day.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8256; marc.morehouse@thegazette.com

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