IOWA CITY, Iowa — Don’t stop. Keep moving.
The message might as well be set on repeat from Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz. If he doesn’t say it, defensive line coach Reese Morgan will.
It has been stuck in defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson’s mind for the last month, and it is what allowed him to break out with a midseason resurgence.
“It’s one of those things,” Johnson said. “When coach Ferentz preaches high motor, high effort, you’ll see the result in the games.”
That’s certainly the case for Johnson. He’s made nine tackles and three sacks in his last three games. He’s standing out on a defense that appears to be rounding into form because he’s not sitting down, not sitting still.
Johnson recorded sacks on back-to-back plays against Wisconsin on Oct. 22. That is where the change in Johnson, more so than his athleticism and strength, stood out.
“His motor has been unreal some of those plays,” defensive end Matt Nelson said. “That two-sack series that he had, his motor was just going.”
Johnson looped around fellow defensive tackle Faith Ekakitie to record one sack. On the other, he shoved a Wisconsin offensive lineman back a few yards, tossed him aside and took down the quarterback.
Nelson is convinced that if Johnson doesn’t keep going to that place, he doesn’t dominate the offensive line like that.
“That is an essential part to being a good defensive lineman,” Nelson said. “You always have to have your feet moving and playing blocks and defeating blocks. That’s huge.”
Johnson is the key to the rush defense. He didn’t play well early in the season, and neither did Iowa. Poor rush defense was a key reason Iowa lost to North Dakota State and Northwestern. Johnson wasn’t clogging lanes and controlling the line of scrimmage. His turnaround started with practice. He followed what the coaches preached. He never stopped.
“Coach Morgan says every single day in practice, do what you do in practice so it shows up on game day, and it can be negative or it can be positive,” Johnson said. “You choose what you want to do.”
He made the decision to go. He hasn’t stopped since. Neither has the defense. He recorded a sack when the defense started to right itself in a win over Minnesota. Games with 190 rushing yards allowed? Gone. Iowa is averaging 105.3 rushing yards over the last three games. It all came together when Johnson decided to keep pushing.
“It helps me personally, it gets you in better shape,” Johnson said. “If you are a high motor in practice, come game time it’s like 60 plays have gone by and you aren’t tired.”
His teammates hope he doesn’t slow down anytime soon. He leads the defensive line with 32 tackles and the team with 6.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks.
“When he plays well there are a lot of plays we can make on the back end,” Iowa linebacker Josey Jewell said.
Defensive tackle isn’t a glamour position. Life isn’t all sacks and quarterback hurries. Johnson takes on double teams and spars with offensive linemen to keep them off his teammates. A successful snap for Johnson doesn’t always result in a tackle, but it’s as vital to the play of the defense as the teammate that gets credit for the stop.
“He has great natural ability, and throughout his career he’s grown and developed as a player, and it’s fun to watch,” Iowa defensive end Parker Hesse said.
Iowa will need him more than ever in November. Three of the final four games are against ranked foes.
“For us to be successful in this coming month, it’s going to be really imperative that all of our best players play their best football, and I think Jaleel is doing that,” Ferentz said. “Hopefully he can continue and build on that.”
His motor got him here. His bull rush got him noticed. If he’s to do what Ferentz wants, he’ll need to keep shoving offensive linemen into the quarterback.
“It is just one of those moments where you can’t really think about it,” Johnson said. “If you are in midrush, you can’t think. It’s one of those things where if a move doesn’t work, try another move as you are going.
Even his pass-rush success is tied into the phrase he can’t forget: Never stop moving.