TAMPA — During practice, Bucs cornerback Leonard Johnson is battling with rookie Johnthan Banks for a starting spot.
But off the field, Johnson, 23, has embraced the role as an unlikely mentor for Banks, also 23, his training camp roommate. The two sit up all night talking plays in the team hotel, with Johnson (the former Largo High star) giving Banks tips on how to approach practice and be a professional.
In the morning, Johnson leaves a note in the bathroom with a spiritual devotion, a source of inspiration to the second-round pick from Mississippi State.
"LJ is everything," Banks said. "He's one of the most positive guys I've been around through high school, college and here (in the NFL). And I'm competing with this guy for a job, but he's there every step of the way."
Johnson is happy to help because he was in Banks' shoes last year, a rookie looking for someone to learn from. For Johnson, who was undrafted out of Iowa State, childhood idol Ronde Barber took him under his wing.
Johnson needed the guidance, as he unexpectedly became a starter when veteran Eric Wright was suspended, and responded by racking up three interceptions while starting six games.
Coach Greg Schiano acknowledged it's an interesting dynamic with Johnson teaching his competition. Banks appears to have the inside track to start opposite star Darrelle Revis, but Schiano said his hope is that both play a big part in the defense. Johnson has seen time in the slot during camp, and could be a nickel corner.
Schiano lauds Johnson paying it forward as a role model.
"That's how tradition is built," Schiano said. "Ronde did that for Leonard. I think what Leonard sees is that's the way you take care of each other. When you get your whole organization saying that is the norm, that's when you have a tradition. Tradition isn't touching a statue, tradition isn't a flag. It's the way people act in our organization, and that's great to have."
Johnson was a great story last season, a local kid who still lived in his childhood home getting a chance to play for his favorite team. He continues to live with his mother in Clearwater, but once he establishes a spot on the Bucs roster, he plans to find his own place.
He feels more comfortable and confident after the successes and struggles of a roller-coaster rookie year. There was his interception in his first career start in Minnesota, and his 83-yard interception return for a touchdown that keyed a victory over San Diego. Johnson's growing pains included getting beat for a critical 80-yard touchdown pass by the Falcons' Julio Jones in a 24-23 loss Nov. 25 at home.
"I have a lot of learning to do," Johnson said. "But I was in this position last year and it makes it a little easier the second time when you know what to expect."
Schiano pointed out how Johnson bounced back, especially in the 22-17 win in Atlanta in the season finale.
"He made some big strides," Schiano said. "When you're a rookie and you get forced into action as early as he did, the 'rookie wall' and all those things, they're real. … Those rookies, they all hit it at some point. Can you rebound? Or does it just crush you? I thought Leonard rebounded. He came back out after a couple tough outings and showed up and played big in that final game. I thought that was huge for his confidence."
Johnson is getting a lot of reps in the slot during the first week of camp. He says he loves the action there, figuring it plays into his strengths. And while he'll continue giving advice to Banks, he's not giving up on starting.
"I think everyone that is in that DB room has that goal, to play on the other side (of Revis)," Johnson said. "The better man will win it."
Times staff writers Rick Stroud and Stephen F. Holder contributed to this report. Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected]