Brown: Listening is learning for Jaleel Johnson
IOWA CITY, Ia. — It takes a lot of traits to become a good college football player. Most of them require athleticism and physical undertaking.
One of them doesn't. It's called listening.
That's what Jaleel Johnson did last season. The Green Bay Packers had a bye week, and former Hawkeye defensive tackle Mike Daniels returned to serve as honorary captain for the Northwestern game Nov. 1.
"After the game, we sat down and he spoke about a few things," said Johnson, in his first season as one of Iowa's starting defensive tackles. "That really helped me a lot the rest of the season, and heading into the summer."
Listening and learning — two traits as important as shedding blockers and making tackles in Johnson's world. After spending two years in the shadow of Carl Davis, now a rookie with the Baltimore Ravens, Johnson is in the front line of the defense.
"They're both big, physical guys, but different guys," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "Carl played very well for us, and he's doing a great job in Baltimore. I'm really pleased with the start Jaleel has gotten off to. He's doing a lot of good things out there, playing with great energy."
A 6-foot-4, 310-pound redshirt junior, Johnson was a Rivals four-star recruit out of Montini Catholic High School in Lombard, Ill. He picked Iowa over a long list of offers, including Michigan State, Michigan, Wisconsin, Tennessee, Arizona and Illinois.
His path to the starting lineup has been a steady climb. Johnson redshirted in 2012, then played in seven games in 2013 and in all 13 last season as a backup to Davis.
"He helped me with patience," Johnson said. "He sat behind some really great players. He waited his turn. I did the same thing."
There was a little frustration along the way. Before the 2014 Outback Bowl, Davis recalled the advice he had given Johnson, who was then at the end of his redshirt freshman season.
"Patience, that's the toughest thing," Davis said. "That's what I'm trying to teach Jaleel right now. He's a very big, physical guy. He gets frustrated sometimes. He wants to play. I said, 'Look, this is my first year starting and I've been here four years.'"
Johnson still talks to Davis frequently.
"He told me to keep working hard," Johnson said. "He's doing the same thing in Baltimore."
Iowa also had to replace defensive tackle Louis Trinca-Pasat, now on the St. Louis Rams practice squad. Nathan Bazata and Johnson are the next guys in.
"Everybody watched those guys, and they respected those guys," Johnson said. "With Nate and I stepping up, all we had to do was go out and show we could play at this level."
Johnson's play was a mixed bag Saturday. He recorded his second career sack after bullrushing a blocker and taking down Iowa State quarterback Sam Richardson. He also jumped offsides twice.
"I was definitely anxious," Johnson said. "It was a huge game."
Iowa hopes to reach 3-0 for the first time since 2009 when it hosts Pittsburgh on Saturday. It's another chance for Johnson and his teammates to add to a promising start.
"He's reflective of our football team," Ferentz said. "I think he's preparing hard and he's worked hard, and clearly some good things are happening for him out on the field."
Johnson also has his eye on the big prize, joining Daniels, Davis and Trinca-Pasat in the NFL.
"Like Daniels and those guys told me, keep working and things will be good," Johnson said.
Listen. And learn.
Hawkeye columnist Rick Brown is a 10-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year. Follow him on Twitter: @ByRickBrown.