TAMPA — Leonard Johnson does not think of himself as the Bucs' starting nickel 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 — a job he held last season — but he does not allow himself to presume anything.
"It's not even on my mind," said the Largo High graduate, who had 41 tackles two years ago after making the roster as an undrafted rookie out of Iowa State. "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."
Johnson, 24, played on 65 percent of the defensive snaps last season, 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 coach Lovie Smith, he has 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, his nickel in his last three seasons with the Bears.
For some teams, the nickel is simply a third cornerback, brought in to replace a linebacker in obvious passing situations. 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 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 job 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 last week's first practices who thrived in the nickel role dating to Smith's early days as a Bucs assistant.
Johnson, born in Clearwater, grew up watching those Bucs defenses, and any comparison 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. "He has good instincts, Leonard does. Ronde would tackle. Leonard is a tough guy. He'll tackle."
The Bucs have a battle for the starting cornerback job opposite Alterraun Verner between incumbent Johnthan Banks and free agent arrival Mike Jenkins. Johnson's job is to not only prove himself the best nickel, but make sure the Bucs aren't tempted to slide the loser of the battle 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," Bucs safety Mark Barron said of Johnson. "When a guy comes out and works like that every day, he's going to get results from it."
Johnson has returned two interceptions for touchdowns during his short career. One went 83 yards to help clinch a 2012 win against the Chargers. Last season, he went 48 yards in the final minute of the first half in a win against the Lions.
But even before Moore was released took away his top competition, Johnson wrote a list of goals. Included was keeping 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. "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."
Contact Greg Auman at [email protected] or (813) 226-3346. Follow @GregAuman.