Jaleel Johnson provides power in middle of Iowa defense

Mark Emmert

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Chris Andriano had seen this display of physical dominance before.

Iowa defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson manhandled a Wisconsin guard, shoving him into the backfield and pulling the quarterback down in one swift motion in an Oct. 22 game at Kinnick Stadium.

Still exhaling smoke, Johnson followed with another blunt-force sack to force a Badgers punt as the third quarter ended.

Iowa defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson reintroduces himself to Wisconsin quarterback Alex Hornibrook after consecutive sacks on Oct. 22. The Hawkeye senior has 5.5 sacks to rank third in the Big Ten, and is in line for an NFL future.

Two plays. Eighteen yards of backward movement for the Wisconsin offense. Two Big Ten offensive linemen left to question their manhood.

Jaleel Johnson, you can’t block him when he’s angry.

Andriano flashed back to his year of coaching Johnson at Montini Catholic High School in suburban Chicago.

“It was our biggest conference game,” Andriano said. “He took a guard on in a passing play. He basically lifted him right off the ground, put him on his backside and the quarterback could not leave the pocket because of outside rush contain that we had, and he just buried the quarterback. It was like, ‘Whoa, did we just see what we just saw?’

“He was a really, tough, aggressive, mean-streak type of player. He was just able to channel that into football.”

Johnson is channeling everything up front for the Hawkeye defense in his senior season, sifting through double-team blocks till he finds a running back and bull-rushing quarterbacks, whatever the situation dictates. His 5.5 sacks are tied for third in the Big Ten. His 32 tackles lead all Iowa defensive linemen.

Iowa (5-3, 3-2 Big Ten Conference) has a bye Saturday and resumes a surprisingly trying season next week at Penn State. How trying? Iowa went on to lose that game against Wisconsin, 17-9, a third consecutive home loss for the defending Big Ten West champions.

For Johnson, it just means there’s more he needs to do. An introspective player, he is quick to point the finger at himself when things go wrong. He knows he’s one of the defensive stalwarts being counted on to turn things around in the Hawkeyes’ final four games.

The fact that he’s playing for Iowa at all was no certainty.

“I actually decommitted before Signing Day to look at Michigan State one more time,” Johnson recalled of the winter of 2012, when the four-star recruit did some last-second wavering between two Big Ten programs. “Then I thought about it, just the stuff I heard about the program and the players there. I didn’t really want to get myself involved with that, so I just really trusted I had a good gut feeling about this place. I committed back to Iowa and I’ve loved it ever since.

“It came down to the system. I feel at Iowa, we’re more family-based here. I didn’t really see that in other programs. They really stick with you from freshman year until you’re 55, 65 years old. It’s that family bond that they have here that makes this place so special.”

That family appreciates Johnson’s impact, especially his willingness to gum up opposing rushing attacks.

“He can move people around, close some gaps,” Iowa linebacker Josey Jewell said. “If he plays amazing, we have a good chance to win.”

Johnson, 22, grew up in a rough neighborhood in Brooklyn, N.Y. As a teenager, his parents sent him to live with an aunt in Chicago, where he had a better chance to thrive. He played football and wrestled at St. Joseph’s High School before transferring to Montini in the middle of his junior year, a move prompted by a coaching change and a losing season.

That’s when Andriano, now in his 43rd year as a football coach, got his first look at Johnson, a man-child at 6-foot-3, 320 pounds already.

Andriano plugged Johnson into the middle of the line in his 4-3 defensive set. As the season wore on, Johnson was also used as a run-blocker in short-yardage situations.

“He didn’t even know his own strength or his own power,” Andriano said. “He was pretty much unblockable. You had to use two guys to account for him. He was quick in small, short spaces. He was devastating and then he was athletic enough to chase things down.”

Montini won a state championship that season, finishing with a flourish in a 70-45 victory over Joliet Catholic. A 21-0 fourth quarter was the difference.

“Jaleel was terrific again. They could not run inside,” Andriano said. “Everything they did had to go to the edge.”

Colleges came calling, with Johnson getting offers from half of the Big Ten. Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz sent a personal letter that made an impression on Johnson. He took a few visits to Iowa City and liked what he saw.

After one late-in-the-process bout with cold feet, Johnson stuck with the Hawkeyes.

He redshirted as a freshman, attending one Iowa wrestling meet, enough to convince him that he had chosen the right sport. He played sparingly in 2013, backed up Carl Davis in 2014 and finally got his chance to start last year, recording 45 tackles, four sacks and being voted honorable mention all-Big Ten.

NFL scouts liked what they saw from Johnson, who now stands 6-4, 310 pounds. He is a projected draft pick in April, with CBS Sports currently ranking him 10th in the nation at his position, 102nd overall. That would put him in the fourth round of the draft.

Johnson is putting pro thoughts aside.

“Time is winding down. You never know when the time’s going to end,” he said of a college career that has either four or five games remaining, depending on how Iowa finishes.

“It comes to a point where you need to get serious.”

Nathan Bazata, who lines up alongside Johnson at defensive tackle, has noticed that change. He said Johnson was much more energized in the practice week leading up to the Wisconsin game, trying to pull his teammates along.

“I just feel like it’s what I’m supposed to do,” Johnson said when Bazata’s comments were relayed to him.

That, too, Andriano has seen before.

“Off the field, he was really a gentleman, a considerate, respectful kid,” said Andriano, who has never before produced an NFL player. “His on-the-field demeanor was extremely aggressive. He was a tough kid in every sense of the word, mentally and physically.”

Andriano has never been able to see Johnson play for Iowa in person. He loves watching on TV, though, marveling at how much stronger Johnson has become.

Johnson does visit his alma mater each year during Christmas break, though.

“He gives me a big hug,” Andriano said.

“I tell him not to squeeze too hard.”