The 2022 NFL Draft is loaded with potential game-changers at the EDGE position and FSU's Jermaine Johnson II is one of the premier talents available. Johnson has an excellent chance to be selected within the first 10 picks.
Johnson's length and first-step explosiveness jump off the screen when scouting him. A pass-rushing toolbox that possesses a variety of effective moves allowed Johnson to record an astounding career-high 12.0 sacks in his lone season (2021) as a Seminole. Johnson is an extremely exciting and ascending player whose best football is undeniably ahead of him. It's music to the ears of teams that will jockey for the right to draft him on Thursday.
Johnson recently spoke exclusively with The Draft Network regarding his incredibly unique journey to the 2022 NFL Draft, what allowed him to take such a massive step forward this past season, his diverse pass rush arsenal, how he developed such a physical mindset, his decision to transfer from Georgia to Florida State, and why he’ll make such a big impact at the next level.
JM: You actually began your collegiate career at Independence Community College, which is a JUCO program in Kansas. You played two seasons there, and the program was even featured on the third season of Last Chance U. What was your JUCO experience like?
JJII: How much time do you have? (laughs). It was extremely rewarding in so many more ways than I could have ever imagined. I’ll say that much. It’s helped form who I am today. I wouldn’t be here without that step in my journey. It was needed. It was a very beautiful part of my journey.
JM: I love bringing that up because I don’t think people always realize the struggles and life lessons that can arise from having that JUCO experience.
JJII: You’re 100% right about that. There’s definitely beauty in the struggle, like J. Cole once said. It’s a struggle, but at the same time, you get to play football in its essence, in what’s really its purest form. There’s nothing flashy involved. You’re not worried about getting drafted at that point in time. It’s actually quite literally the opposite of flashy. JUCO all comes down to the chemistry and the bond between yourself and your teammates. It’s not for people who don’t truly love football. It’s really just about playing the sport of football at the end of the day. It’s stripped down. That’s the beauty of it. I wouldn’t take it back for anything.
JM: I love that. There’s something so pure about stripping away the inevitable business side of the sport that can sometimes complicate matters. That’s what JUCO does. After two highly successful seasons at Independence, you accepted an offer to attend Georgia. Talk about going from the bottom to the top, and it doesn’t get better than Georgia. What was your mindset like at that moment?
JJII: It was a very wild time for me. It’s quite similar to what’s going on in my life right now. You’re focused on the task at hand. You’re taking one step at a time. You look up and you haven’t reached your goals yet. You just have to put your head down and keep grinding. One day you look up and you’re there, and it’s just like, holy crap, I actually achieved what I was working toward. That’s an awesome feeling. And then you start focusing on the next issue.
I think that’s the first time I realized there’s always another mountain to climb. You’ve just reached a new peak in your life, but now there’s another mountain. I guess when I got to Georgia, it was like, okay, you’ve made it here, this is a new peak, but it’s also the base of a new mountain.
That was a nice awakening for me. It’s the same thing in regards to where I am right now. This is the start of a new peak, but it’s also a new mountain I’m eager to climb. The difference is, I know what I know now. Yeah, I’m excited to get where I’ve finally wanted to be so badly, but I’m also thinking about rookie mini-camp and pre-season. I’m thinking about working my butt off throughout training camp. That’s where my mind’s at.
JM: I love where you’re going. It didn’t end up working out at Georgia like you envisioned. You were a younger, rotational player that was stuck behind some veteran, NFL-level talents. Where was your mind at when you decided maybe it was best for you to enter the transfer portal and look for another opportunity?
JJII: It ultimately came down to the snap count, and it had a little to do with scheme fit as well. I thought I fit the scheme at Georgia, but I also fell into a rotational SAM linebacker position. There were more coverage duties involved than anything. I’m 255 pounds. Although I’m athletically gifted and can cover some receivers and tight ends, and play in coverage, it didn’t allow me to fully showcase who I am as a player. That’s just the honest truth. I came to the conclusion that I had one year left to show the NFL what I’m capable of. I knew I couldn’t miss out on that opportunity.
JM: I’m gaining so much from this honest conversation we’re able to have. We’re all human beings. I’m curious if you ever allowed doubt to creep into your self-evaluation. Was there ever a moment where you allowed yourself to get down on your luck based on the lack of desired playtime at Georgia?
JJII: Of course there was. You start to ask yourself, what’s going on? I fixed the issues the coaching staff asked me to fix, right? It’s either one of two things. I’m either really just not that good, or they just desire somebody else over me. You start coming to the realization that it’s one of those two things. Or maybe it’s that we’re just not on the same page in regards to who we believe should be on the field.
There’s no bad blood whatsoever. I’ll forever give Georgia their flowers. I met so many amazing people at that program. I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for the University of Georgia. I think they know that, and I also make it abundantly clear that everybody else knows that. I love that university. I chose to attend that university out of junior college for a reason. There’s still a tremendous amount of love there.
I wouldn’t do it differently if I could. It had to play a role in my journey because it’s my journey at the end of the day. That’s really the blessing of it all. The blessing from God isn’t anything materialistic. It’s always something more than that. For me, that’s my journey. It’s about who my journey turned me into.
JM: There’s beauty in the struggle as you said and we all know how this story ends. You arrived at Florida State and you exploded for 12.0 sacks in just 13 games as a Seminole. You must have had a sense of vindication like, I always knew I was capable of this. When did that moment hit you?
JJII: I’ve always had confidence in myself. I never allowed that part of it to sway or change. At that level in the SEC, and especially at the NFL level I’m headed for, confidence is everything. Everybody is going to be physically gifted and talented at the next level. Most of it is mindset at that point. Knowing that I am who I know I am, I still remember that first game at Notre Dame. That was our first game of the season, and my first game at FSU. I burst onto the scene right then and there. I felt great. I was playing at a high level. I was rolling. I wasn’t going to come out of that game, and if I did, it was because I needed a quick breather.
The team was leaning on me a ton, which felt awesome. We unfortunately came up short that game, but it felt good to know the team was comfortable leaning on me to make plays for our defense. For me to actually deliver in the short time I had, not only on the field, but also to the point where people in this Tallahassee community have really embraced me, I sleep well at night knowing what the people at the program will say about me when I’m gone.
That’s what I hold dearest in my heart. I take so much pride in that. This program will have great things to say about me and the legacy I leave behind here when I’m not around. That means the world to me. I know it will continue to live on.
JM: That’s so incredibly true. This may be a difficult question to answer, but outside of more opportunity and snaps, what else do you think led to your massive 2021 season?
JJII: Confidence. It was just about confidence. I’ll take it back to that. Confidence and responsibility. I was blessed with a tremendous opportunity when I arrived at Florida State, but it also came with a ton of responsibility. I had to hold myself accountable because I knew I had more eyes on me now than ever before. I knew I was being watched. I’ve quickly earned a leadership role on this team. I have to do everything right. I think I put my all into that. I wouldn’t have been what I was if I wasn’t playing for something greater than myself.
JM: I’m excited to talk about your pass rush arsenal. Studying your tape was one of the most fun experiences I’ve had this cycle. You have such a diverse arsenal. I’m not entirely convinced there’s a better EDGE rusher in this class. What are some of your go-to moves and counters?
JJII: First of all, I appreciate you for saying that. That’s a big compliment. I also think I’m the best EDGE rusher in this class. My mantra as a pass rusher is this, you need to have one or two moves mastered. For certain pitchers in baseball, they can rely on their fastball in their sleep and when it matters most. It’s the same as a pass rusher.
If an offensive lineman punches me when I’m sleeping, I need to have my go-to move ready to unleash. You have to rush three or four yards behind that offensive tackle, and you try your best to beat him to that fight line every single time. I call it a fight line. If he covers you up, which means he’s in front of you, or he’s on top of you and you really can’t bend that edge, you go with power or you transition inside.
Same thing now. If you get off and beat him to that fight line and you’re even with him hip-to-hip and you can get that edge, now you should work an edge move because you’ve got him where you want him. As an EDGE rusher, having that mindset and approach always allows you to utilize your get-off, which is the most important aspect of rushing the passer. It also means you always have a plan.
You shouldn’t have to think on your toes. A lot of times, I can watch my film from last season and point out certain reps where I didn’t have enough of a plan. There were times where I didn’t come off the ball like I should have. I lost reps because of it. Even now, I can think back while paying attention to what I’m implementing into my training at this very moment.
Last year was really the only year I had to grow and thrive as a pass rusher, a full-time pass rusher. I grew so much even as the season progressed forward. Going into my rookie NFL season, it will be my second consecutive year to really grow as a full-time pass rusher at this level. With the level of coaching I’m about to receive, the resources I’ll have at my disposal as a pro, I’m just really excited about what’s ahead. I know what I can do for myself, and for my team. Most importantly, I know what I’ll do to an opposing team.
JM: What you can do to an opposing team and their quarterback is the key sentence there. As fun as you are as a pass rusher, you’re equally as effective at setting the edge and stuffing the run. Talk to me about the mentality required to stop the run.
JJII: Rushing the passer is a reward. It’s not a right. You have to earn that. I actually learned this at Georgia. It was instilled in us. We had something called bloody Tuesdays at Georgia. That’s when we would strap the pads on and hit each other pretty hard.
That kind of training is necessary. It’s sort of like how Spartans train. That’s why they were so lethal. When it came down to battle, they weren’t doing anything differently from what they did in training. It’s very similar. You train and practice the way you play. That’s how you earn the right to rush the passer.
That’s something I learned at Georgia, and it takes you and I back to the part of the conversation where I said I’m truly thankful for my time at Georgia. I had to earn the right to rush the passer, and you do that by being as physical and nasty as you can in the run game.
JM: It’s something coaches preach at the next level. Rushing the passer is a privilege. While studying your game, I don’t recall any lapses in effort. You can be honest about your self-evaluation and say maybe you didn’t get off the ball as quickly as you would have liked to on certain reps, which you said earlier, but I don’t remember ever writing down that I wasn’t satisfied with your effort. You should take a tremendous amount of pride in that. Where does that mindset and temperament come from?
JJII: I’ve always understood that the game of football is a team sport at the end of the day. It’s not about you. It’s never been an individual game, and it’s never going to be about one single individual. I know I have 10 other guys around me that are expecting me to give 110% on every single snap.
Here at Florida State, our defensive philosophy was to give us a place to stand. Ok, you’re probably not going to win every single one-v-one rep. If you get bombed, or if you get gassed, if something like that happens, just give us a place to stand. The only way you can successfully do that is if you haul your butt to the ball.
That’s something I tried to do every time I stepped onto the field. Just give us a place to stand. I made sure that I was around the ball. I took the ball-carrier down with me.
JM: What in your opinion are three traits a successful pass rusher must possess at the next level? You’ve talked about get-off quite a bit.
JJII: Yeah, number one is always going to be about your get-off for me. That’s easy. Number two? Having a plan is just as important. I touched on that when we discussed my pass rush arsenal. Last but not least, a motor. You need all three of those things in order to become an impactful pass rusher. If you’re missing one of them, it will be detrimental to you as a pass rusher. You need all three, and you need to master all three. Once you do that, you’ll become an excellent pass rusher.
JM: Throughout this entire process, ranging from your performance at the NFL Scouting Combine to your Pro Day, to making in-person Top 30 visits, what do you feel is the overall impression you’ve left on all 32 teams?
JJII: That Jermaine Johnson is the real deal. I think even after the season I had, there were still some question marks surrounding me. Maybe it’s because people felt like I went up against lesser opponents or whatever the case may be. I think as of right now, it’s clear that I am the real deal. It’s one of those things where I kind of jumped onto the scene, but I’ve always been here. I had my opportunity to show the next level what I can do this past season at Florida State.
To be quite honest, if I had a second season with this sort of production and this amount of opportunity let’s say in 2020 like I had in 2021, it wouldn’t even be a question who the best EDGE rusher in this class is or who’s going to be the first guy off the board.
We’re on the same track. I know what I am. I think they know what I am now as well. I’m happy about that.
JM: I think that’s a terrific point and I won’t dispute it. If you could sit down and pick the brain of any pass rusher in today’s league, who would you choose and why?
JJII: I would choose a couple of people. I would choose Von Miller and Khalil Mack. Von Miller because it’s Von Miller, you know? (laughs). He’s always been a headache for the opposition. Watching him in his prime was a special experience.
With Khalil Mack, I try to somewhat model some aspects of my game after his. Being able to talk to a guy that has a similar body type and play style, that would be really beneficial for me. Going back to Miller, he’s been the most consistent pass rusher over the last decade or so.
JM: Those are two terrific choices. I’ve really appreciated your time today. I feel like this conversation has highlighted why Jermaine Johnson is one of the best pass rushers available in the 2022 NFL Draft. In closing, why should a team use a top-10 selection on Jermaine Johnson on Thursday?
JJII: Because there’s nobody like me. There really isn't. You said it earlier Justin, and I agree with you. I’m being unbiased here. I’m a self-aware person. I self-critique myself. When I look at my film, there isn’t anything that’s missing. There are things I can get better at and improve on, yes, but there’s nothing that is missing.
When you look at the other EDGE rushers in this class, there are things that are missing. There are holes in their games. If I was a general manager, if I was one of those teams, I wouldn’t overthink it. What’s there is there, and what isn’t there, well, isn’t.
Any progress I need to make will be made. I wouldn’t overthink it. There’s nothing missing from my game. As I discuss my future with NFL teams, they tell me that any issue they have with my game will be easily corrected. Some of these guys are missing things from their game that aren't fixable. Anything I can improve in, can, and will be fixed. My game will continue to improve, and those things are being fixed as we speak.
They understand that I’m the real deal. There aren’t any weaknesses in my game. I’m equally as impactful as both a pass rusher and as a run stopper, as you and I discussed. I think I’m a better pass rusher personally, but people are always surprised when they see that I’m just as physical and nasty in the run game. People are taken aback by that.
They understand I’m tenacious and nasty. I’m going to get it done by any means necessary.