For any rookie entering the NFL, there is a seemingly unavoidable adjustment period that could last an indeterminate amount of time depending on where the player comes from and his capacity to learn at a fast rate.
The NFL waits for no player and each adjustment period is different. For rookie Rams cornerback
Coming from the University of Montana to the Rams, though, also comes with a special set of circumstances that have made for a few other modifications that will almost certainly come much easier.
Take, for example, Johnson’s relationship with assistant secondary coach Brandon Fisher, the son of head coach Jeff Fisher. Johnson and Brandon Fisher played two years together for the Grizzlies. In a basic sense, they’re old friends who have more of a history as teammates than they do as coach-player.
“Me and him joke a lot,” Johnson said. “It’s funny calling him Coach Fisher because I played with him two years but out of respect, of course I am going to call him Coach Fisher.”
If the rest of Johnson’s adjustment to the NFL comes as easy as that one, he could be on the field and producing much sooner than expected. More than a month into his first offseason as a NFL defensive back, Johnson has spent the better part of his time in St. Louis with his head buried in the defensive playbook.
When Johnson’s not studying up on the book, he’s sidling up to Fisher, defensive backs coach Chuck Cecil and veteran corners such as
“We’ve got pretty close to everything installed and I am just taking it day by day,” Johnson said. “It’s a lot for me and I am just trying to learn as much as I can right now.”
When Johnson isn’t at the ContinuityX Training Center in a meeting room or working on the practice field, he makes it a point to spend at least an hour every night studying his playbook.
The Rams defensive scheme is fairly complicated and asks far more from its personnel than what Johnson had at Montana. Even at the expense of his beloved NBA playoffs, where Johnson focuses his fandom on the Miami Heat and LeBron James, he’s making a point to find time every night to study up.
“Outside of here, I take my playbook home every day and try to get at least an hour in,” Johnson said. “I’m usually exhausted from practice and I like basketball so with the playoffs on, I try to make sure I still get in my hour, sneak it in any way I can. You’ve got to get it in where you can fit in.”
As a small school alumnus, Johnson regularly gets the inevitable question about the jump in competition from a non FBS school to the NFL. That’s something that clearly didn’t concern the Rams about the 6’2, 205 pounder.
“I don’t think it is,” Jeff Fisher said. “You’re going to compare him to his peers, to those others that are draft eligible so I don’t think it is. The question often comes up, ‘Well, look at the level of talent or the receivers he covered,’ so on and so forth. You still see the movement skills. You still see the physicalness in his play.”
For his part, Johnson cites the usual top-cited difference between the college game and the professional game when asked what the biggest difference has been so far. He says there has been no identifiable “welcome to the NFL” moment, rather just an attempt to catch up as quick as possible so he can react instead of think on the field.
“The biggest difference is just the speed of the game,” Johnson said. “Everything else is football and having fun. There was no wake up call; it’s just studying the game. This is a whole new level from college.”
Johnson’s transition to the league has been eased by a comfortable environment that includes not only both Fishers but a welcoming group of defensive backs spearheaded by Finnegan, the consummate professional with a willingness to help his younger teammates.
“Cortland Finnegan is a hell of a player and a good guy off the field, also,” Johnson said. “I try to look at him and see what he is doing play in and play out; see how he plays, what he is reading, take everything I can from him every day.”
Johnson’s approach so far has been on learning the playbook but he also tries to keep himself sharp physically by finding one specific skill he can work on each day. Some days that means spending extra time refining his footwork, other days it’s working on hand placement for press coverage and still others he might be focusing on tackling technique.
While perhaps fellow rookie corner
Given his size and physical approach to the game, Johnson has made a strong impression in his own right and has had some standout moments such as an impressive pass breakup on a deep pass intended for rookie wideout
After racking up 15 interceptions in four seasons at Montana, Johnson has showed that same ability to play the ball.
“First off, he’s got great ball skills,” Jeff Fisher said. “He can go get the football, had a bunch of interceptions. He’s a big corner, he’s got long arms, he can press, he’s going to work at the off coverage and he’s physical and he’ll tackle.”
With a full training camp yet to come, there is much to be determined in the ongoing jockeying for position amongst corners on the Rams roster. Finnegan and Jenkins have taken most of the work with the first team of late but anything beyond that is always up for grabs.
For his part, Johnson has set modest goals for his initial season.
“First of all, make the 53-man roster,” Johnson said. “I always say that. I don’t care if you are a first-round pick or free agent; you still have got to make the team. I’ll work my way up from there. As long as I am on the field and producing, I’m happy and I won’t worry about the rest of that stuff.”
If that means Johnson doesn’t play anything but special teams right away, so be it. He made it clear he’s willing to do whatever it takes to help out. And though Fisher has previously said Johnson is a corner and will stay at corner, Johnson said the door remains open for potentially helping out at safety.
“I can play corner and safety,” Johnson said. “If the coaches want me at corner, I can play corner. If he wants me at safety, I can play safety. I love tackling, that’s why I say I can do safety. But I also like coverage so wherever coach needs me, that’s what I will do.”
In the meantime, Johnson will focus all of his attention on trying to take all that he’s learning from the meeting rooms and his playbook out on to the field and getting to that point where he’s instinctively doing everything he’s supposed to do.
“It’s a lot of reps,” Johnson said. “Just reps, reps, reps. It’s one thing on the board to learn all of this stuff but then you take it to the field and it can be hard to transition. But it’s all about reps. You have to pay attention; you can’t be slacking on any of it.”