ATHENS, Ga., — It hasn’t been the smoothest of introductions to big-time football for outside linebacker Jermaine Johnson.
He came to Georgia as the No. 1 ranked JUCO prospect in the country for the 2019 signing class. He — along with Georgia’s other JUCO prospects — actually enrolled in December and were allowed to practice during the bowl season. This proved to be a great benefit for cornerback D.J. Daniel, who Kirby Smart has routinely praised.
But Johnson didn’t enjoy that same experience, as he entered Georgia with a foot injury. Then in the spring, he sustained an ankle injury that limited him at times. Now into fall camp, Johnson has once again been dealing with ankle injuries.
Smart told reporters on Wednesday that Johnson has yet to be 100 percent because of the ankle injuries. That’s what should make his recent scrimmage performance so promising.
“I thought in the scrimmage the other day there were some places where he showed burst, acceleration, kicking situations and some edge situations that he did a really nice job,” Smart said. “So we were really pleased with his jump from scrimmage 1 to scrimmage 2.”
Schools of Georgia’s caliber rarely take JUCO prospects who won’t be able to make an early impact. Given Johnson’s measurables and athletic abilities, the Bulls expects Johnson to be a guy who can come in and help improve a pass rush that was one of the worst in the SEC a season ago.
Early on in his time at Independence Community College — that of ‘Last Chance U’ fame — Johnson caught the eye of Dan Lanning when he was still the inside linebackers coach at Memphis. But due to Johnson’s JUCO stay, Lanning would have to wait before officially recruiting Johnson.
So when Lanning took the job at Georgia, and Johnson eligible for the 2019 season, the now Georgia defensive coordinator made it a point to try and land Johnson.
“Obviously Jermaine’s somebody we’re really, really excited about,” Lanning said. “Jermaine’s a guy that when I was at Memphis, I went and watched a junior college football game, and I got to see Jermaine Johnson perform that year. I said, ‘Man, I wish I could recruit that guy,’ but I couldn’t. Well now this year, I can, and so when I got here, that was one of the early guys that I identified as a target for somebody that we could look at and was able to build a relationship with him that we had for a long time.”
Related: Why Jermaine Johnson committed to Georgia football
Johnson still has some work to do in terms of becoming a consistent contributor for Georgia. Smart added Johnson still needs to get better if he is going to be an every-down player for the Bulldogs. Smart did indicate that Johnson is expected to be a contributor on special teams for the Bulldogs this year as well.
He also isn’t the only outside linebacker vying for playing time, as Azeez Ojulari, Nolan Smith, Walter Grant, Robert Beal and Adam Anderson are all looking to get onto the field this far. Ojulari has stood out the most thus far and has the inside track on being the starter for the Vanderbilt position.
Related: Azeez Ojulari confident in unproven outside linebacker room
But Georgia will often rotate outside linebackers, meaning there is plenty of playing time to be had.
“He’s fighting for opportunities to get reps,” Smart said of Johnson. “He’s fighting with Azeez, Walter, Nolan, Robert. I mean there’s some dudes competing over there. And Adam.”