Jerome Johnson’s hometown of Bassfield, Miss. is a community of fewer than 300 residents nestled in the southern region of the state. It stretches across a mere 1.1 square miles of land, a place that’s easy to drive through and even easier to forget.
Except when it comes to football.
Before it consolidated with another nearby school system in 2017, Bassfield High School was, on its own, a high school football powerhouse. It won four straight state titles from 2012 through 2015, while regular producing players who went on to play at some of the nation’s premier programs. And yet, as he navigated the recruiting process while playing on one of Mississippi’s top high school teams, Johnson found it difficult to get noticed by the big schools. There was a point when the developing defensive lineman had zero Division I offers, and even the coaching staff at Indiana — the school that ultimately took his commitment — wasn’t initially sure of what to make of him.
Tom Allen, though, was convinced.
As IU’s freshly-hired defensive coordinator in January 2016, Allen looked at Johnson as someone who could help the Hoosiers in the years to come. While scouting southern Mississippi during previous coaching stops, Allen came to know Bassfield’s program, and its coach, Lance Mancuso, fairly well. But as the 2016 national signing day loomed, Allen still had to do some lobbying back at home.
“I knew him,” Allen said. “We brought him here on an official visit and had not even offered him yet. I kind of convinced everybody here ... to take him. I had to go through and pull film from the Mississippi-Alabama All-Star Game, which he played in, and show clips of him playing just to convince the coaches here that, ‘Hey, this is a guy that I believe has a chance to be a special player here.’”
Five years later, it’s clear that Allen was correct.
At IU, Johnson developed into one of the better defensive linemen in the Big Ten, becoming the first Hoosier defensive tackle since Hurvin McCormack to earn first-team All-Big Ten honors when he did so this past fall. Allen’s belief and Johnson’s hard work paid off, and now, the 6-foot-3, 304-pound three-technique is heading into this weekend looking to become the first IU defensive lineman since Jammie Kirlew in 2010 to have his name called in the NFL Draft.
“Coming in (to IU), I started off slow,” Johnson said last month. “(I’m proud of) just getting better every season. I got All-Big Ten first team this year, which hasn’t been done in a while, so that’s a great accomplishment.”
Indeed, it was. Johnson, who was recognized as the Hoosiers’ top lineman in each of his final three seasons in Bloomington, closed his college career with 111 tackles, 63 solo stops, two fumble recoveries, one forced fumble, one interception, four hurries and one blocked field goal in 45 games.
But it was his ability to cause problems in the opposing backfield that jumps out. Johnson recorded 13.5 career sacks and 21 tackles for loss, leading the Hoosiers (or sharing the top spot) in sacks in each of his final three seasons.
Johnson also had a knack for showing up in some big games. In 2019, he posted three total pressures against Ohio State, four against Michigan State and three against Tennessee in the Gator Bowl. This past fall, Johnson totaled three pressures — including a sack — against Ohio State, while racking up four sacks across three consecutive games against Michigan State, the Buckeyes and Maryland. After the season, he left Bloomington to train at TEST Sports Club in Martinsville, N.J., where he worked on his explosiveness and his pass rushing moves.
So what can Johnson expect from this weekend’s draft? It seems he has a decent shot at getting picked. If not, he’ll have an opportunity as a free agent. WalterFootball.com ranks him as the No. 9 available defensive tackle, while CBS Sports has him pegged as the No. 174 player on its big board.
Not bad for a small-town guy who nearly went unnoticed.
Johnson Draft Profile
Weight: 304 pounds
NFL.com assessment, per Lance Zierlein
Widens base through contact.
Attacks angle blocks with stiff punch under the pads.
Effective use of hands and weight shift to beat block.
Well-timed spin counter to get off block and tackle.
Good effort to get back into reps and work back to runner.
Swallows running backs trying to sneak by him.
Above-average short-area foot quickness for twist game.
Gets up on top of quarterbacks with closing burst.
Not much wasted motion with his pocket attack.
High-cut body with thin ankles.
Gets cut off too often due to slow read-and-react.
Undisciplined lateral slides through engagement.
Unable to keep pads square to the line.
Bludgeoned by Ohio State’s front.
Struggles to press and extend blocker off of him.
Shed power is slightly below average.
Stiff punch jostles his rush attack off course.
Change of direction is leggy and labored in rush counters.