Indiana safety Jamar Johnson fell down the board a bit, but he still found a home in the NFL on Saturday with the Denver Broncos.
Denver, led by a defensive-minded head coach in Vic Fangio, took the Hoosiers’ 6-foot-1, 205-pound safety with the 20th pick in the fifth round, No. 164 overall.
Johnson was a first-team All-Big Ten selection in 2020, tied for IU’s team lead with four interceptions. It was a breakout season for a previously under-the-radar recruit from Sarasota, Fla., who came to IU as a hybrid “husky,” served as a backup to Marcelino Ball his first two seasons, but then flourished as a first-year starter at free safety as a junior.
Johnson’s versatility as a hybrid defender — flashing an ability to play in the box, blitz quarterbacks, and cover a receiver in the slot — was a big reason why NFL teams valued him. After his junior season, Johnson received a second- or third-round grade back from NFL and decided to skip his senior year.
Johnson didn’t end up going that early, but he extends IU’s streak of players drafted into the NFL to eight years. Dating back to 1994, when the draft was reduced to seven rounds, that is IU’s longest run of consecutive years with a player picked.
The safety from Sarasota also played a major role in the Hoosiers’ recent run of success on the field. This past season, IU tied its program record for conference wins with six, buoyed by a chaos-creating defense that led the country in interceptions.
IU jumped into the top 10 in national polls, accomplishing its best ranks since the 1960s.
“I’m most proud of being ranked this year, that was one of my biggest goals,” Johnson said before IU’s pro day. “Always wanted to be ranked, wanted to have that number by my team’s name and be a big part of that.”
Johnson is the Hoosiers’ first defensive back drafted since corner Ray Fisher, who was taken in the seventh round by Indianapolis in 2010. He’s the first safety chosen since Eric Smedley, a seventh-round pick of Buffalo in 1996.
Denver has done a fair bit to upgrade its defense in this draft. The Broncos spent a first-round pick on Alabama corner Patrick Surtain II, someone Johnson trained with during the pre-draft process. Denver also picked Ohio State linebacker Baron Browning in the third round. In the fifth, the Broncos selected two safeties, Texas’ Caden Sterns and Johnson.
What they were saying ….
- “Johnson is a versatile defensive back with good balance, quickness and change of direction. He’s not a centerfielder, but he plays faster than his timed top-end speed and closes well on tape. He tracks the ball well and is opportunistic.” — Steve Muench, Scouts Inc. NFL Draft Analyst
- “Ascending defensive back offering coverage and positional versatility for today’s brand of NFL football. Johnson offers enough field fluidity to cover the slot and showed off impressive instincts and ball skills to excite teams about his potential as a high safety.” — NFL.com draft analyst Lance Zierlein
- “Underrated safety prospect who is explosive against the run and solid in coverage. Feisty, mixes it up with opponents, and displays range. Tracks the pass in the air, displays a good break to the throw, and effectively times pass defenses.” — Pro Football Network draft analyst Tony Pauline
Top Indiana moment
In the 2020 Gator Bowl — the Hoosiers’ first January bowl game since the 1988 Peach Bowl — Johnson starred with a 63-yard pick-6 off Tennessee’s Jarrett Guarantano. Weaving through a sea of Vols and up the sideline for a score, it was a big moment for the sophomore from Sarasota, whose family was in attendance in the Jacksonville Jaguars’ stadium.
5 Things to know about Johnson …
1. His motto is “See ball, get ball.” He picked the phrase for himself after an interception-less season as a sophomore in high school. He went on to have six interceptions as a senior at Riverview.
2. Johnson was a lightly regarded recruit for most of his high school career, earning a three-star grade late in the process. He was the No. 1,130 recruit nationally in 2018, according to the 247Sports composite, including the No. 171 prospect in the state of Florida.
3. Late in the recruiting process, Johnson was pursued by Tennessee and Florida State. He stuck with IU, which sent its coaching staff to Sarasota on visits a half-dozen times.
4. Johnson has not only excelled in football as a youth —but as a cook. His grandmother, May Louise Johnson, is a certified chef, and Jamar was able to cook eggs at the age of five. He has also mastered baked spaghetti, key lime pie, and a variety of chicken dishes. “I don’t see anything I can’t make, really,” he said.
5. Johnson didn’t put up eye-popping numbers at his pro day, but it was a solid performance. He ran the 40-yard dash at 4.58 seconds, but he leaped 35 inches in the vertical jump and logged a 4.41 short shuttle. He also lifted 225 pounds 17 times in the bench press.