D.J. Johnson Working to be Money at Iowa’s Cash Position
IOWA CITY, Iowa – D.J. Johnson chose Iowa thinking he would be the program’s next lock-down cornerback. He admired Hawkeye all-Americans Desmond King and Josh Jackson.
Now, there’s a new plan. Johnson is lining up as the team’s starter at the new Cash position.
The Hawkeyes created the hybrid defensive back-linebacker spot last season for Amani Hooker. It aimed to counter pass-happy offenses with a quicker player in the box capable of covering receivers but also supporting the run.
“I think everything just played out how it was supposed to,” Johnson said. “It was cool how we created a new position. Having so much depth at corner, it was cool getting into somewhere where I fit. It’s a hard position to play, but it really challenges me and it’s something I hope to excel at.”
Johnson ran with the first-team when Iowa showed its 4-2-5 look during Saturday’s annual Kids Day scrimmage here at Kinnick Stadium. He performed well, registering a pair of sacks off of the blitz, defending passes and aiding the rush defense.
Coverage skills should serve as Johnson’s strength out of the gate with his cornerback background. His challenge could come in stopping the run, where he’ll be required to shed blocks of tight ends and offensive linemen at times. He checks in at 5-foot-11, 183 pounds where as Hooker was 6-0, 210.
“It’s really fun to play in the box because you’re around the ball a lot. You do have to be good on your feet, though, because a lot of big guys will come out and pull. You’ve got to get off the those blocks and set the edge,” Johnson said.
“I’ve been knocked on my butt a couple of times, but I’ve knocked a couple of guys on their butt as well.”
Johnson arrived at Iowa with a pedigree. A four-star prospect out of Indianapolis North Central High, he chose the Hawkeyes ahead of scholarship offers from Notre Dame and LSU, among others. Ohio State was moving in before signing day.
A hamstring injury delayed the start of Johnson’s Iowa career. He returned to practice about midway through the 2018 season, working behind Hooker from that point on. He saw action against Penn State, Illinois and in the Outback Bowl win versus Mississippi State.
“He’s a little different than Amani,” said senior Iowa cornerback Michael Ojemudia, who also is seeing time at Cash. “Amani is a bit bigger build. D.J. is a little more fluid player. Coming in, his technique was already there. He just had to get the football side, learning the defense.
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“The Cash position has to know as much as anybody on the field.”
Said Hooker: “D.J. is a kid who wants to be great. Last season he was always asking me questions about why I did a certain thing on a play. He plays physical and can make plays that come his way. Wherever he ends up, I think he will do great.”
Johnson feels more comfortable in the defense with each passing day. The coaches are challenging him as opponents will present him with different looks based on a full offseason of preparing for Iowa’s 4-2-5.
“You have to have a good IQ because you have to do a lot. It’s one of the most complicated positions on the field,” he said.
Strength coach Chris Doyle and his staff transformed Johnson. He arrived at Iowa weighing 164 pounds and opened camp this month at 183. He also added speed.
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“I’ve got a long way to go, but it’s cool to see all of my numbers improve in the weight room,” Johnson said.
He’s also feeling his way around being in a leadership position on defense. He’s making calls and directing older guys around him.
“Being a younger guy on defense, you have to earn your stripes. Communication is big. If you know what you’re doing and communicate well, that’s a big part of it,” Johnson said.
He’s received the wrath of emotional defensive coordinator Phil Parker when mistakes happen. Johnson has been absorbing the lessons, watching film and correcting the errors.
“You know it’s coming, so you just have to deal with it, let it roll off your shoulders,” he said.
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Johnson’s transition to Iowa was eased by his relationship with his high school assistant coach Anthony Dean, who played for the Hawkeyes and was an administrator at his alma mater.
Dean checked in with his pupil last week, making sure everything was going smoothly.
“It’s cool having someone that’s been here and been through the same situations,” Johnson said.
While football represented a big change for him, the cultural switch from inner-city Indianapolis to Iowa City might have been bigger. He experienced heartache growing up with a hard-working, single mom, LaShanda Santiago.
Johnson often thinks about from where he comes. He understands he’s serving as a role model for youth back home. He welcomes that responsibility.
“I think it’s a major blessing just coming from a place where people experience violence and struggles. Now I’m in a position to do something special for my city and represent well,” he said.
Here’s an interview with Johnson from last Friday’s media day: