TAMPA, Fla. — Quarterbacks go through footwork drills in one corner of practice. Wide receivers work on breaking out of routes. Linemen bounce off each other near the end zone while perfecting the finer points of hand placement.
It’s a moving, breathing portrait of hard work and focus come to life. Everything is done at Iowa with a purpose.
It’s in the middle of this exercise in determination that the laugh comes through. It’s impossible to miss, especially if you’re near the defensive tackles.
And it’s as vital for Jaleel Johnson as the footwork drills he’ll go through.
“It’s all about having fun,” Johnson says. “If you are just stressed and tense all the time, workouts can’t be fun. If you go all-out, you want to have fun. That’s how I see it.”
Johnson is different from his 114 teammates, and it’s not just because of he’s got a 6-foot-4, 310-pound frame. For him to play his best, fun is a requirement. He is an outlier for a straight-laced program. But for Johnson to maximize his enjoyment, and his career, he first needed to learn how to get serious.
• • •
Ask a Hawkeyes player to name a jokester, any jokester on the team. Johnson’s name rolls of their tongue.
Goofy. Comic. Those are the first words teammates and coaches use to describe Johnson.
“He is a character,” cornerback Greg Mabin says.
He’ll take defensive tackle Parker Hesse’s sleeve and rub it in the face of fellow lineman Jake Newborg.
“Just nickel-and-dime stuff,” defensive tackle Faith Ekakitie says. “Obviously, he meant no harm by it.”
Johnson’s sense of humor will randomly show up, be it in the locker room, possibly the practice field, or even on game day.
Cornerback Desmond King is always on the lookout for it. Johnson will stare at the opposing crowd after a sack and then just walk off. He won’t utter a word, leaving the fans confused and King smiling.
“It’s a silly deal,” King says.
Nothing is sillier than “the dancing bear.” That’s the only way King can describe it. Johnson likes to dance in the locker room. When King sees it, the first thing that comes to mind is a bear grooving out.
“He is full of spirit,” King says. “He is full of happiness. That is one the thing. He brings joy to our team.”
Enjoyment is a necessity for Johnson. Without it, he can’t be happy, and a happy Johnson is a must if he’s to accomplish anything.
“Have fun with (football) and you’ll get better because you are taking everything in,” Johnson says.
• • •
It’s hard to miss Johnson. The eye naturally gets drawn to a 300-pound individual. It’s a good thing, too, because it’s worth seeing what happens upon the snap.
Johnson becomes a unique mixture of violence, explosiveness and athleticism. He delivers a distinct pop when hitting an offensive lineman. He can use his hands to throw them around like chew toys. His first step is fast enough to help ensure he’s the aggressor delivering a blow, instead of absorbing it.
“When he comes off the ball, he’s a force to be reckoned with,” Hesse says.
He can clog running lanes, is strong enough to take on a guard and center, yet nimble enough to split them and still get to the ball carrier in the backfield. It’s as if he was engineered to specifically play defensive tackle.
Johnson loves it, and not because it helped him become a 4-star high school prospect or All-Big Ten defender. It ensures that he plays a position where he can live in relative anonymity. Most plays Johnson can do his job — push the line of scrimmage into the backfield or ensure a linebacker goes untouched while making a tackle — and nearly everyone in the stadium and watching on TV won’t notice.
Fans dig sacks, not double teams.
“I’m not really a spotlight kind of person,” Johnson says. “That’s not what I’m all about.”
Johnson is private, and he doesn’t divulge much about himself in interviews. He saves the dancing bear for the locker room. He doesn’t even want to talk about it, at first saying he doesn’t know anything about it. Once pressed, he admits that, yeah, he dances in the locker room.
Trying to move him off the line of scrimmage is an easier task than trying to get any more information out of him.
“Only around my teammates and in private,” Johnson says. “Never if there is a camera around. It’s not happening.”
But he still is Johnson. He’ll make a joke, such as almost handing a rivalry trophy to journalists when it gets too heavy, but he’d rather be in the background, watching it all unfold, eschewing the attention. So, yes, not only is he physically built for defensive tackle, his personality is a dead match, too. He can clock in. He can clock out. His teammates and coaches know he did a good job.
For Johnson, that is the definition of fun.
• • •
All Johnson needed was a taste, a little bit of college football action to realize something needed to change. He started to get some practice reps with the second-team defense as a sophomore. Johnson liked it and wanted to do more. But he knew the kid that walked in, who was all about fun with a laid-back attitude, wasn’t going to cut it anymore.
“I had this mentality of whatever happens, happens as a young guy, because I didn’t really know what to expect,” Johnson says.
Now he did. He put together a plan, almost a to-do list help him become a better player.
Watch more film.
Take additional notes.
Do extra work outside of practice.
He put together the blueprint by watching the older defensive tackles. He noticed what they did and strove to be like them.
“That is one of the things that really put me on track,” Johnson says.
Hard work is a cornerstone of the program. So is discipline, toughness, determination and physicality. Grinders thrive in black and gold. Without realizing it, Johnson chose to embrace the Iowa way.
“You have to know what kind of young man is going to be successful here,” defensive line coach Reese Morgan says. “Is he going to be the kind of guy that does the things we ask our guys to do?”
The answer became yes. Johnson says he didn’t set specific goals, that he wasn’t worried about starting or seeing snaps as a sophomore. Hoping to get his shot was the only playing-time thought he says he entertained. He would play in all 13 games as a sophomore in 2014. Though he only made two solo tackles, he knew his plan was working.
“Once that happens, you never stop doing it,” Johnson says. “You never stop doing things that put you in a position to go out there and play.”
• • •
For Kirk Ferentz, defense in football is a lot like defense in baseball. A team must be strong up the middle. The defensive tackle is a lot like the catcher.
“At least the way we’re built and we like to play, it’s a pretty good parallel,” the Iowa football coach says.
But it’s not how the Hawkeyes were playing earlier this season. They allowed an average of 182.8 rushing yards over the first five games.
Johnson knew he was part of the problem. The interior run defense, the land of defensive tackles, wasn’t what it needed to be. Johnson needed to get back to playing like his junior year, his first season as a starter, when he earned All-Big Ten honorable mention.
Morgan always preached about motor. Teammates say Johnson has a good one, but it didn’t stop him from focusing on his effort.
And an interesting thing happened. The more he did, the better his performance became. Moving around also got him in better shape and increased his stamina. High motor, high effort and results will follow. Iowa coaches say it all the time. It proved true. Johnson would finish with 54 tackles, 10.0 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks while earning All-Big Ten second-team honors this season.
“He has embraced that role and how he fits into the defense, and now he is playing better and better,” Morgan says. “He started playing his best football the second half of the season.”
The run defense followed his lead. Iowa’s final three opponents all failed to rush for 100 yards.
“You could tell the difference between his work ethic freshman year and his film study and attention to detail freshman year compared to now, where he is firing on all cylinders,” Mabin says. “There is a reason for that.”
He became more than just a dancing bear.
• • •
Ekakitie watched the St. Joseph (Westchester, Ill.) High School players file off the bus. As the biggest player stepped off, his Lake Forest Academy coach leaned over.
See him? You’re going against him.
This was his introduction to Johnson in 2009.
The two would square off as sophomores and juniors in high school. They didn’t get many plays off from each other because each played both ways. Ekakitie still brings up the fact that his team won both games. Johnson pipes back about the time he pancaked Ekakitie. There is one problem though.
“No film,” Ekakitie says. “I don’t remember it happening. I am still waiting for him to pull the film out.”
Their high school days made them fast friends in college. Ekakitie was getting second-team reps next to Johnson when the big kid put together his plan, and he watched as Johnson developed into an all-conference player. Ekakitie was there for every step of Johnson’s transformation.
And this year, a funny thing happened. Ekakitie saw Johnson use a bull rush with an inside stab. He liked it, tried it out at Illinois and registered a quarterback pressure. The jokester became the leader.
“When you have someone that good playing next to you, you try to emulate some of the things he may do,” says Ekakitie, who hoisted the Heroes Trophy with Johnson after they beat Nebraska in their final Kinnick Stadium game in November.
• • •
Johnson really doesn’t want to show off the dancing bear.
But, after being asked so much about it, he came up with a compromise — and a promise — for the Outback Bowl on Monday afternoon against Florida, his final collegiate game.
“If something good happens,” Johnson said. “I’ll start dancing in the middle of the field.”
Odds are, he won’t be the only one laughing if he does.