There's an imaginary opponent that lives inside Jaquan Johnson's head.
He's been there for as long as he can remember. He's about 6-foot-6 and 4-percent body fat. He can run a 4.1 40-Yard Dash and Bench Press 600 pounds. He doesn't need sleep and he never gets tired. And with each passing second, he gets stronger, faster, smarter, better. For as long as the NFL has been Johnson's dream, he's been chasing this invisible adversary. "I always thought someone was working harder than me—when I'm sleeping, someone's working out," Johnson says.
The pursuit has led him to this, a reality where he's a top safety prospect for the 2019 NFL Draft. A two-time All-ACC selection at the University of Miami, Johnson says he plays every down like it's fourth-and-inches. He's a thumping tackler and a galvanizing leader. UM head coach Manny Diaz once called him the "heart and soul" of the team's defense. Johnson's evolution into the player he is today began nearly two decades ago, when he first strapped on a helmet in Miami's Richmond Park.
"I played defense at first, and my dad told me to just run into people like a missile. So that's what I did and I fell in love with the hitting part of football," Johnson says.
The intense training began soon after. Johnson's father would have Jaquan dress up in his pads, then release him in the backyard with a brother and sister who were three-to-four years older than he was. His older siblings ran with the ball, and Jaquan had one objective—bring them down. "They never went easy. It was always tough. Sometimes I never got them down. I'd go in the house pouting, come back out and try it again. We'd do this all day," Johnson says.
His natural athleticism was immediately evident. On the day he received his first bike, he found the training wheels to be cumbersome. He asked his parents to remove them, they obliged, and he was effortlessly zipping up and down the block within minutes. He recalls busting out 500 consecutive Sit-Ups, with his father holding down his feet, at age 7 or 8. He developed a reputation for bone-rattling hits in the physical pick-up games that took place on his block. By the time he enrolled at Miami Killian Senior High School, his work ethic was unmatched.
"My mom was a Winn-Dixie worker, my daddy was a construction worker. Those are hands-on jobs, jobs you don't really want to do but you have to provide for the family. Me seeing them work so hard is why I decided to work so hard throughout high school (and) college," Johnson says. Not satisfied with his role as a freshman at Killian, he'd come home from games and run wind sprints in his front yard. He had a killer mentality on the field, so much so that his coaches worked with him to add more cerebral elements to his game.
"He was a dog when he got to us," Cory Johnson, Jaquan's head coach at Killian, told the Palm Beach Post. "We had to teach him how to play under control, with a controlled rage. You can't be in 'kill mode' the whole time."
The team's coaching staff broke down game film on Sundays. With their permission, Johnson began joining them. He often worked out three times a day—a lift with the team, then sprints on his own, then a late-night beach workout with Killian teammate Tremaine Washington, who now stars for the CFL's Toronto Argonauts.
"This is one, two, three o'clock in the morning sometimes. I might be playing a (video) game, doing Push-Ups at the same time. Then I'm like, 'I might as well go work out. I'm up and there's nothing else to do.' I'd text (Tremaine)…say let's go to the beach. Let's go run on the beach," Johnson says. "He'd wake up, and we always did it."
The idea someone out there was working while he was not haunted Johnson. Training during the dead of night gave him the peace of mind that even if a kid on the west coast was grinding at the same time (which would of course be more reasonable given the time difference), then he was, too.
"I just wanted to make sure every spot was checked. At least I know if he's working out, I was working out at that time," Johnson says. He soon became one of south Florida's brightest high school stars, producing spectacular plays from his safety position while also being featured as an offensive weapon for Killian. His ability to dissect offenses became one of his greatest strengths. Ahead of a rivalry game against South Dade High School his junior year, Johnson noticed that when the Buccaneers came out in a certain set, they seemed to run the same route concept over and over. He tipped off his coaches and they devised a plan to exploit this crucial intel.
"This was a team that liked to come out in stacks, and they always had someone in the flat, and they were running a corner route, as well. So every time they came out in this formation, we had a linebacker showing he was blitzing, but he was dropping into the hook-curl from the line of scrimmage, (and the) cornerback was jumping down on the flat route," Johnson recalls. "Every time they came out in that formation, we were able to get an interception, because they didn't see the linebacker dropping all the way to the hook-curl. They were just reading the cornerback jumping down to the flat route." Killian went on to notch four interceptions in a victory over their bitter rival.
By the time Johnson finished his high school career, he was a three-time first-team All-State selection and a U.S. Army All-American. He committed to the University of Miami, picking a college less than 10 miles from his high school. His academics were strong enough for him to enroll early.
"They're NFL U really. I was thinking about helping my family, I wanted my family to see me play football in Miami," Johnson says. "I thought it would just be a great feeling for my family and me if I stayed home."
Almost immediately, Johnson earned rave reviews from his Hurricane teammates. He describes his college routine as "work out, go to study hall, work out again, then repeat." He starred on special teams as a true freshman, tallying 26 tackles, a forced fumble and an interception. He earned five starts as a sophomore, totaling 38 tackles, 3 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks and an interception.
"We could use a few more Jaquan Johnsons. Because he can help us in so many ways," Diaz told reporters in 2016. "We don't have enough Jaquans to go around for all the places that he could help the football team."
Johnson had a breakout junior campaign, starting every game and leading the Hurricanes with 96 tackles. The team's glittering "Turnover Chain" became a common accessory for him, as he swiped four interceptions and forced three fumbles. Miami finished 10-3, their best record since 2003, and Johnson was named Team MVP. He also garnered second-team All-American honors from Sports Illustrated.
Johnson contemplated forgoing his senior season and jumping to the NFL. But a conversation with former UM great Ed Reed, who's become something of a mentor to Johnson, helped convince him to finish out his eligibility. "I asked (Ed) why he came back to Miami. He said honestly he was loving it, he wanted to win a national championship, and he already knew the NFL wanted him. He said, 'Why not come back another year? They're still gonna want me,'" Johnson says. "I ran with that."
The Hurricanes had national title aspirations heading into 2018, but it didn't play out like that. When the team dropped four straight games mid-season to fall to 5-5, Johnson felt the locker room beginning to splinter. As a team captain, he knew it was his role to keep them together. The night before his final home game in a Miami uniform, he delivered an impassioned speech to the team. "My head coach called me and asked me if I could deliver a message before the game, the night before the game," Johnson says.
"I thought about what speech would be the right point for this moment where we (were) at. I thought about a rollercoaster, ups and downs, but I thought it was too traditional, they hear it all the time. There's this movie I love. The Replacements with Keanu Reeves. He talks about quicksand, and how the harder you fight, the deeper you sink. I put a spin on that speech. I told him the harder we fight alone, the deeper we'll sink. But if you reach your hand out and unite with your teammate, we can pull each other out of the quick sand. This was after losses we were taking, close calls, you hear finger pointing, you see things (in the) media. We were't focusing on the things in the locker room." Miami went on to beat Pittsburgh in convincing fashion, and finished the season with a winning record. Johnson again led the Hurricanes in tackles with 92 and earned second-team All-ACC honors.
When STACK met up with Johnson, he was preparing for the pre-draft process at XPE Sports in Boca Raton, Florida. He clocked a solid 4.64 40-Yard Dash at his pro day, but overall, he's not a guy whose pure measureables will blow your mind. Lightning-fast processing skills help make up for that. "(He's) sneaky quick, and very reactive fast," says Tony Villani, Owner of XPE Sports. "His reactive time and how he picks things up and how he transitions gears is great."
Johnson prides himself on enduring pain. He believes his ability to do the difficult things day after day for years on end is what got him here. Whenever he feels like easing up, a vision of that imagined opponent manifests in his mind's eye.
"You have to learn to overcome X amount of pain to get where you want to go. Every step is not going to be easy. It's not going to be all sunny days. It's going to be dark days and days you don't want to go," Johnson says. "But you have to realize and understand someone's feeling the same way. But they're going to go."
Photo Credit: Icon Sportswire/Getty Images, Justin K. Aller/Getty Images