Every once in a while, a player comes along with an infectious attitude or an impeccable work ethic that endears himself to fans.
James-Michael Johnson, a versatile linebacker from Nevada selected by the Browns in the fourth round of the NFL Draft, might be one of those guys.
Shortly after he was drafted, Johnson spoke with an excitement about playing the game that would make even the most casual of football fans feel the passion.
“I’m a competitor, ya know,” Johnson said in a conference call. “I just love the game of football and I love to play hard. I love making big plays and sparking my defense.”
Even playing special teams, seemed to pump him up.
“It’s something that I really like doing, I embrace special teams,” he said. “I don’t mind running down on [the] kickoff or covering punts or doing anything, really. I love everything about it.”
It’s the team-first attitude of a player who was widely overlooked coming out of Rodriguez High School in Fairfield, Calif., where he was a multisport letter winner known for his athleticism on the basketball court. Nevada associate coach Ken Wilson saw a player they could mold into a quality linebacker and took a chance. It was Johnson’s only Division I offer.
“His athleticism was a big draw for us,” Wilson said. “We watched him play basketball and we felt, with his athletic ability, we could get him here and teach him. When he got here, though, he was a natural. By the time he was a redshirt freshman, he was already starting.”
The lack of attention from other Division I schools motivated Johnson as he set his sights on the NFL. So when he arrived at Nevada, he got to work on improving.
“To me, it was like wherever I go, I am going to make it to the NFL,” he said. “That’s my goal. I didn’t care if I went to Solano Community College. … I was going to make it, I didn’t care. That was my goal the first time I stepped on campus.”
With his work ethic on and off the field, it didn’t take long for Johnson, who graduated early in December, to win over his coaches.
“James-Michael is a really intelligent guy — you don’t have to chase him around to watch film,” Wilson said. “He’s a football nut. Every night after practice, he’s up here watching film. Motivationally, he won’t take a back seat to anybody as far as preparation goes.”
All that time spent in the film room contributes to Johnson’s versatility as a linebacker, one of the reasons the Browns felt comfortable taking him in the fourth round.
Johnson, 6-foot, 241 pounds, started at strongside linebacker at Nevada his freshman and sophomore seasons before being moved to the middle his last two years. He started 50 games (23 on the outside and 27 in the middle) and had nearly 300 tackles. Last season, he had 100 tackles (5.5 for a loss), a forced fumble and an interception.
Wilson says moving Johnson to the middle was only out of necessity for filling the position rather than anything to do with him specifically. In fact, Wilson still thinks Johnson is better suited for the outside.
“Johnson was the best guy to put in the middle because that’s what had to be done, but he’s more natural on the outside,” Wilson said. “He’s very quick and a really good open-field tackler. He does a good job on the edge of the defense, playing against sweeps or covering tight ends.
“He’s hard to handle because of his arm length and foot speed. And he’s a basketball player so he’s got great ball skills. He can slip through tight spaces and make plays that other guys can’t.”
That versatility might get put to use earlier than expected.
Following Scott Fujita’s three-game suspension, the Browns need to fill one of the outside linebacker spots. Chris Gocong will either stay at weakside or again slide to the strongside as he did in Fujita’s absence last season, leaving Kaluka Maiava, Johnson and sixth-round pick Emmanuel Acho as the leading candidates for the job.
Johnson says he was overlooked in high school. He also thinks he was overlooked in the draft (he was the 14th linebacker taken). He spent hours upon hours in the film room at Nevada and wanted to play on every special teams unit he could just to get on the field.
Now, he’s in the NFL and has a chance to compete and reward the Browns for seeing what some other teams didn’t.
“Seeing a lot of linebackers I felt go before me that I don’t think are better than me, stuff like that is going to motivate you,” he said. “Stuff like that is going to make you want to work out and run harder.
“I’m going to be motivated, you don’t have to worry about that. I’m not a guy you have to motivate.”
Ryan Lewis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the high school blog at http://www.ohio.com/preps. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/RyanLewisABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.