COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Maryland
cornerback Jeremiah Johnson
clearly recalls the play that cost him practically his entire junior season. Week 1. Byrd Stadium. Florida International
. Second half. Opening kickoff.
"What happened was I was blocking, Stefon [Diggs] had the return, and my toe just kind of went back further than it needed to," Johnson said. "At the time I didn't know what what [had happened], and I went back in for a play. But then I couldn't deal with it and I had to come out."
Eleven weeks later, Johnson was still out, shelved for Maryland's next 10 games. The 5-foot-11, 190 pounder was only supposed to miss eight weeks, and he originally targeted the Maryland-Syracuse bout Nov. 9 as his return date. But his toe still ached heading into the pre-Syracuse bye week, and he didn't see the field again until the finale against N.C. State.
But even when Johnson did return, he played just two snaps -- entering when starting corner Isaac Goins
briefly left the field -- and didn't register in the stat book. That meant Johnson, who ended 2012 as arguably the team's top returning corner, would finish the regular season with just two tackles, no picks and no pass breakups.
"I would be lying to say I wasn't disappointed. It hurt," Johnson said. "But I learned you have to be patient and you can't control every situation. You have to have a positive attitude at all times, and fortunately I have another opportunity to come back next year."
In fact, the District Heights, Md., native will have a chance to come back Dec. 27 when the Terps take on Marshall
in the Military Bowl in Annapolis, Md. Johnson seemed genuinely thrilled about the opportunity, especially since he was a redshirt freshman the last time the Terps went bowling.
"If the season didn't go the way it did [with getting to a bowl], [Johnson] wouldn't have gotten a chance, so this is a chance for him to finish the season where he started – on the field," quarterback C.J. Brown
said. "So we're excited for him and excited to have him out there. Leadership wise, and for a guy who was out so long, now seeing him back out there, it's just great. We're really happy for him."
Expect an even savvier player when Johnson takes the field at Navy Marine-Corps Stadium. Turns out all that time off allowed him to become well acquainted with the video room. Johnson said watching more film and then taking in the action from the sidelines gave him a different perspective, and as a result he believes his football IQ ratcheted up.
"Sometimes just by watching, you better understand concepts, routes and situational football," Johnson said. "You see things [opponents do] on first, second, third down maybe you wouldn't pick up on while out there. So I think I really picked up a few things, and I'm excited to get out there and show what I learned."
Though Johnson kept proper perspective and stayed relatively upbeat during his recovery, he admitted it wasn't always easy sitting out. He said there was a point where his rehab schedule forced him to miss team meetings, which was challenging because he felt he couldn't contribute from the trainers' room. Johnson would even pester the doctors from time to time, eager to be cleared so he could at least work out with the team.
"But one thing I've learned is you have to take care of your body. If you're not ready to play, it's selfish to put yourself out there. So I learned to be patient. I had no choice but to be patient," Johnson said. "I grew from that, and I understand you can't control every situation, but you can control your attitude. I had to be patient, and I think I grew as a man first and a football player second."
As one of the team's leaders, Johnson understood there were other ways he could contribute even if he couldn't take the field. He took pride in assisting other defenders, namely new starting cornerbacks Isaac Goins and Will Likely, the latter of which ascended into a starting spot when senior corner Dexter McDougle
suffered a season-ending injury.
Johnson's role included pointing out techniques and tendencies during games, breaking down opponents on film and, perhaps most importantly, maintaining that positive attitude during the Terps' midseason lull.
"J.J. … came in early, put me under his wing and he mentored me," the freshman Likely said. "He got me right. He helped me with learning a new defense and allowing me to feel comfortable in my game so I could just go out there and play."
Naturally, there were times during the season when Likely made a few coverage mistakes and Goins had a couple breakdowns. Johnson, though, made sure to approach each of them during games, letting them know "every cornerback is going to get beat from time to time."
But other than a few mishaps, Maryland's two backup cornerbacks played well. Likely garnered several ACC Rookie of the Year votes, while Goins had two interceptions and a couple significant breakups.
"Fortunately I play a position where we haven't been struggling, so it was never a rush like, ‘We've got to get him back,'" Johnson said. "One of the things I told Isaac from the beginning is this is a blessing for him. This is his last year so this is his last chance to really contribute, and he's played really well.
"And Will, he's exactly what I thought he'd be from the beginning of the season. With me and Dex going down, it gave him an opportunity to really show what he could do, and he took advantage of it, along with Alvin Hill
, who was locking down receivers as well."
But on Dec. 27, instead of offering up moral support, Johnson should be able to physically assist his fellow defensive backs. He said he's "really close to where he wants to be," and he's been able contribute more and more during each successive practice since the N.C. State game.
"Anytime you have a veteran on the field with a lot of experience it's a great thing. We're definitely excited about it," senior nose tackle Darius Kilgo said. "It gives us as a defense even more confidence with him back there."
The quarterback Brown said Johnson pushes the defense and acts as a pseudo-secondary coach.
"The biggest thing is the way he sees the field, his IQ of the game and the way he studies," Brown said. "He can definitely help the younger guys, because he's someone guys listen to and he's very well respected. He's one of the leaders in the secondary and the entire defense."
Although Johnson has been cleared, he isn't sure exactly what his on-field role will be during Maryland's first postseason appearance in three years. But the former Suitland High star isn't worrying about how much playing time he gets against Marshall, so long as the Terps come out with a victory.
If he happens to record a pick or two, though … well, that would go a long way in erasing that early-season FIU memory.
"That's out of my control," Johnson said, laughing. "But we'll see if the opportunity presents itself."
COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Maryland junior cornerback JJ Johnson missed most of the 2013 season with a toe injury, but now he's healthy and the Military Bowl Dec. 27 is a chance to end on the right foot (or toe).