Johnson keeps focus in battle for nickel job
TAMPA -- Leonard Johnson does not think of himself as the Bucs' starting nickel defensive back.
Especially with the release last week of veteran D.J. Moore, Johnson could have the confidence of being the man to beat at nickel -- at a job he held last season for the Bucs -- but he does not allow himself to presume anything.
"It's not even on my mind," the Largo High graduate said, still driven by the hunger of a player who made the Bucs two years ago as an undrafted rookie out of Iowa State, then had 41 tackles that first season. "Everybody in this league is good. You let one guy go, but there's 89 other guys on the team, everybody just fighting for a roster spot. I'm doing that."
Johnson, still just 24, played on 65 percent of the Bucs' defensive plays last year, finishing with 62 tackles and returning an interception for a touchdown for the second year in a row. With a change in coaches in the offseason, he had to prove himself again, but to hear Lovie Smith, he's made a strong first impression.
"(He is) smart, coachable. Everything you can do to really excite a coach before you put on the pads, he's done," said Smith, who trusted Johnson enough to cut loose Moore, who had been his nickel in his last years with the Bears.
For some teams, the nickel is simply a third cornerback, brought in to replace the third linebacker in obvious passing downs. With more pass-heavy offenses in the league, nickels are on the field more often than not, and Smith treats them as their own unique position. Smith proudly has the nickels working with 71-year-old Larry Marmie, who coached him at Tulsa some 36 years ago and gave him his first assistant jobs in college football.
"Coach thinks highly of the nickel position," the 5-foot-10, 202-pound Johnson said. "It means a lot, knowing it's its own position. It's a very important role, to be able to come in and play first and second down, to be able to stop the run and be active in the pass game."
That versatility was perhaps best shown by former Bucs corner Ronde Barber, a visitor at this week's first practices who thrived in the nickel role, going back to Smith's early days as a Bucs assistant. Johnson, born in Clearwater, grew up watching those Bucs defenses, and any comparision to Barber is a high compliment, especially from a coach who has worked with both.
"Ronde was the best nickel back to play the game," Smith said this week. "He has good instincts, Leonard does. Ronde would tackle, Leonard is a tough guy, he'll tackle."
The Bucs have a strong battle for the second starting cornerback job opposite Pro Bowler Alterraun Verner, with returning starter Johnthan Banks battling free-agent arrival Mike Jenkins. Johnson's job is to not only prove himself the best nickel, but to make sure the Bucs aren't tempted to slide the odd man out from Banks and Jenkins into the nickel job.
"Since Day 1, he's been a hard worker. I actually feel like he's one of the hardest workers on this team," safety Mark Barron said. "When a guy comes out and works like that every day, he's going to get results from it."
Johnson has shown a penchant for big plays in his short NFL career -- he returned an interception 83 yards for a touchdown to help clinch a 2012 win against the Chargers, and returned another pick 48 yards in the final minute of the first half to help the Bucs to a rare win at Detroit last season.
But even before Moore's release took away his top competition, Johnson wrote down a list of goals for himself, and included among that was a reminder to keep a short-term focus, to not lose today's practice thinking about a decision made a month from now.
"Don't look too far down the line," Johnson said of his self-advice. "Take it one day at a time, and before you know it, the season will be here. All the goals I set out for myself will be there."