Cover Charge

Jovon Johnson embarks on his junior season needing nine interceptions to break the Iowa career record set by the legendary Nile Kinnick. Not bad for a guy that had two Division I scholarship offers coming out of Erie, Penn. Read what the Hawkeye cornerback thinks about matching up with Charles Rogers and Lee Evans, keys to playing his position successfully, and if he plans to make another fashion statement in 2004 in this HN.com premium feature.

Jovon Johnson might never see a football stadium bearing his name. But the diminutive cornerback has set his sight on breaking the record of a man that does have that honor.

Shortly after arriving at Iowa, the lightly recruited Johnson announced his desire to top Nile Kinnick's school record of 18 career interceptions. Devon Mitchell (1982-85) also reached that total.

Johnson begins his junior season this fall with 10 picks. He already is tied for seventh on the program's all-time list and needs five to move into third position.

It's a pretty amazing story if you consider that Kent State was Johnson's only other Division I scholarship offer coming out of Erie, Pennsylvania's Mercyhurst Prep. He and his high school coach Jeff Nichols convinced the Hawkeyes to take a chance on him while they were recruiting teammate Levonne Rowan, who ended up at Wisconsin.

Injuries and depth problems pushed Johnson into action as a true freshman. He played in all 13 games, including a start in the Big Ten Championship clinching victory at Minnesota, where he forced a fumble and intercepted a pass.

"I've come a long way," Johnson said. "As a freshman, I really didn't know what was going on. I was just kind of playing, going through the motions and being in the right spot at the right time.

"Now, I'm older and I know what to expect. I know what the defense is. Now, it's not a coincidence that I'm in the right place at the right time. It's because I have experience now that I'm in that position."

Johnson played on instinct for the majority of his first college season. He focused on not getting beat by the deep ball, which can deflate a young player.

"As long as you don't get the ball thrown over your head when you're young, you'll be OK," said the DB that is generously listed at 5-9, 177. "You're going to make mistakes. Things happen. That's part of being inexperienced."

Johnson and his fellow defensive backs garnered a lot of attention early in '02. The team's first six opponents averaged 338.7 passing yards a game. It became the focus of media and fan attention. It was real dose of reality for a newcomer to Division I football.

"There's always motivation out there somewhere," Johnson said. "People might say that we're getting beat and we're doing this and that wrong. That's the motivation that you need to keep getting stronger and keep getting better as a defense in the secondary.

"Those things are going to come and go. People are going to say what they think. Even though you might not think the same thing, that happens. You've just got to keep getting stronger, keep getting better and keep working hard."

Iowa bounced back to hold its final six regular season foes to an average of 203.2 yards through the air. In that run, the Hawkeyes limited Michigan State all-American Charles Rogers to 5 catches for 78 yards and ended his streak of consecutive games with a touchdown at 13.

"We had heard all of the hype all week about Charles Rogers coming into town," Johnson said. "We just challenged ourselves to stop him from scoring a touchdown because he had the streak going at the time.

"You know that good players are going to make big plays. Just being able to contain him the way that we did, it was something real special for our defense and really gave us a confidence boost."

The Iowa defense ranked first among Big Ten teams in red zone and fourth in pass efficiency in '03. Johnson finished second in the conference and 18th nationally in passes defended (19), and second and 22nd, respectively, in interceptions with six.

Johnson said that one of his keys to success is understanding the position which he plays.

"It's you against the receiver," he said. "They're going to catch passes. They're going to make plays. That's why they're playing Division I football.

"But if you can get the best of them the majority of the time, that's all you can ask for in a corner. You have to have a short memory and be able to make plays.

Much like a pitcher and hitter in baseball, the CB-WR matchup matches wits. Participants guess what the other guy is going to do based on a knowledge of history obtained through personal experience, scouting reports and game film.

"When you know the tendencies of the receivers, you can get a feel for what they're going to do," Johnson said. "With somebody like (Wisconsin's) Lee Evans, you've got to know your limitations. If you're not fast enough to get up and press him, you've got play off.

"You've just got to know what to do against certain players. You've got to know how to react when you're playing against good players and when you're playing against guys that are not as experienced.

"It's a mind game. You've got to guess with who you're playing against and what kind of things they can do. You've got to be able to watch it on film and see what they can do."

While Johnson is all business on the field, he occasionally lets himself loose off of it.

Reporters got a taste of Johnson's wilder side last fall. After intercepting two passes and breaking up three others in a season-opening win against Miami (Ohio), he strolled into the postgame press conference wearing a red suit with matching leather shoes that featured a fresh shine.

With the media eagerly anticipating his next fashion statement, Johnson dressed conservatively for the rest of the season. And he has refused to let on if there are any wardrobe surprises planned for the 2004 campaign.

"I'm keeping that one to myself," he said with a suspicious smile. "I guess that you'll have to wait and see."


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