NFL.com's "Why I Play" series provides a thoughtful peek into the minds of the next generation of NFL players to better understand what drives them to make it in the league. Other prospects included in this series: TCU DT Ross Blacklock, Auburn DT Derrick Brown, LSU CB Kristian Fulton, TCU CB Jeff Gladney, Florida edge Jonathan Greenard, USC OT Austin Jackson, Wisconsin RB Jonathan Taylor, Michigan LB Josh Uche and Minnesota S Antoine Winfield Jr. This edition's featured prospect is ...
2020 NFL Draft standing: Johnson sits at No. 29 in NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah's ranking of the top 150 prospects and is projected to be an early-round draft pick.
Prospect bio: Johnson made his impact on the Ute's defense felt over his three seasons. As a freshman in 2017, the Fresno native tied for the team lead with six pass breakups and logged 25 tackles and one interception in 12 games (two starts). In 2018, the first-team All-Pac-12 selection led the team with four interceptions, ranking eighth in the country with 126 interception return yards (including one TD), and added 41 tackles, two for loss and four pass breakups. He followed that up with an impressive junior campaign, one that garnered second-team All-American and first-team All-Pac-12 honors after he recorded a team-high 11 pass breakups and two picks. Johnson, who also earned academic honors while at Utah, recently underwent shoulder surgery after participating in the NFL Scouting Combine. NFL Network's Tom Pelissero reported last week that Johnson is ahead of schedule in his recovery process.
This interview, conducted via phone call on April 8, was condensed and edited for clarity.
How I started
I started playing flag football at 6 years old and tackle at 7. Honestly, I played all the sports, but basketball and football were the ones I played most. I played on the AAU travel basketball circuit, but I got hurt my sophomore year in high school and had a change of heart. That's when I started focusing more on football. I took my chances and put all my marbles into football. Once I fully committed to playing football, that's when I knew I wanted to play after high school. I had a list of about 25 scholarship offers and I took that decision seriously. I wanted to go where I could compete for a starting spot, play alongside other good athletes, a school where I could get good exposure, play in a good conference, and things like that. Utah was able to fulfill everything on my list.
A positive influence on me
My position coach at Utah, Sharrieff Shah, helped mold me as a man. Ever since we met in the recruiting process, I have been able to lean on him for a lot of things. I always felt comfortable talking to him and we built an uncle-nephew relationship of sorts. Being a young kid and going through some stuff, being able to trust him was very big for me.
My brother, John Johnson Jr., is also somebody I go to often to get advice on football or life in general. He played football at UCLA and he's the kind of guy who keeps to himself and works hard. He worked for everything he wanted and was always the "he does too much" kind of guys. I got some of my work ethic from him for sure.
My biggest challenge
Playing through my shoulder injury the last year and a half has been challenging. Having to play through it and still being expected to play at a high level is tough. I still wanted to achieve greatness even though I wasn't at 100 percent. I just had my third shoulder surgery (between both shoulders) and rehab is going really well. My improvement is steady and I'm taking everything day by day, going through exercises and strengthening it.
Right now, my daughter motivates me. Zaveah is 5 months old, and there's a different spark in me ever since she came into the picture. My training has gone up a notch and I always want to better myself as a man and an athlete. I do a lot of self-reflection and read books about how to be a better version of myself. I want to be able to give my daughter and my family, including my parents, who were both college graduates, everything.