COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- It's not exactly the "Jackson's" revival tour, or their smash hit "Going Back to Indiana" and their Gary, Ind., roots, but Maryland senior corner Jeremiah Johnson's family will strike up the bus this weekend and make the long trek to Bloomington, Ind., for Maryland's long-awaited first Big Ten game.
"I had an uncle live in Gary, Ind., (home of the 'Jackson Five') before, but he moved back to D.C.," Johnson said on Sept. 24. "So my dad and three of my other uncles, they are all driving out there. About an 11-hour trip. I think Friday night they are heading out."
And they will get to see a lot more of the Terps' heady senior, who has had quite a journey in his final go-round as a Terp.
Johnson, who made his biggest contribution of the season when starter Alvin Hill went down to injury last week at Syracuse, delivering three tackles and a pass break-up, will likely get a lot more run this week at Indiana with Hill still on the shelf. Johnson, who sits on the Terrapin Council player leadership and is one of the team's most respected seniors and workers, has seen his role expand more also because of his sticky play in the Terps' secondary, where UMD has needed more physical plays on the ball.
"You know, I'm comfortable where I am because I understand I have a different role this year," Johnson said. "My job right now is to come in on our sub packages and not let anybody catch the ball. And I put 100 percent of my effort and focus on doing that and being the best player I can be in this role. I am just here to help the team."
Johnson helped the Terps backline communicate better after some early defensive woes up front, what with their cobbled-together front line and linebacker corps given the spate of injuries. He had the PBU, which he nearly converted to a pick, and was ball-hawking much of the day, something the Terps need more of.
Said Terps defensive coordinator Brian Stewart:
"I think he is doing a great job. He has always been a leader from the first day I was on this campus, so I expect him to keep that leadership going. He has, and as he plays, the more he plays the more comfortable he gets back into the groove to when he was a starter. So I am pretty excited about what he can do."
On the SU performance, Stewart added:
"He was physical. He played his man well, played the ball well, his approach on tackles was clean. He did a good job."
Indiana poses threats in the run game (see running back Tevin Coleman and his 189.0 ypg average), and has a very solid junior quarterback in Nate Sudfeld, who can toss it around.
"They have a good team. Obviously they have explosive receivers, and they have a good quarterback with a good arm," Johnson said. "And they have a good rushing attack. But as far as the secondary, they want to get their guys in space and I think they have a lot of confidence of what they can do on the perimeter. It will be a challenge for us but I think we will be ready for it."
Johnson said his footwork and technique have gotten better each week, along his comeback trial from his foot injury, which kept him out of the spring and dropped him out of the starting rotation, yielding to Hill. But Hill has had his struggles in the coverage game, and now has the injury. Johnson, sophomore Jarrett Ross, and perhaps even true freshman Daniel Ezeagwu, could see the field more going forward given the injury issues. Johnson can play both corner spots.
On the season, gaining more and more reps each week, Johnson has nine tackles, two breakups and posted his first career interception in the opener against JMU. He also had four stops versus West Virginia. All those numbers should be going up soon with an even heavier load to carry beginning this weekend.
"I feel great," Johnson said. "Each week I feel more and more confident in myself and I am ready to get out there this weekend."
Johnson has also taken on something of a mentor role to Terps standout sophomore corner Will Likely, who comes up with big plays every week, including his 88-yard pick-six at Syracuse that broke the Orange's back.
"I went to him early Saturday [at Syracuse], and said, 'hey, you know, let's see if you can put two [games] together,'" Johnson said. "Now I am going to have to say three. This weekend I am looking for him to have a third big game in a row, that's how competitive he is."
Johnson said the Terps' defense was very disappointed after giving up nearly 700 yards to West Virginia two weeks ago and nearly 600 at Syracuse.
"You know, we hold ourselves to high standards," Johnson said. "The coaching staff holds us to high standards. So that performance last week we weren't really happy with it, although we kept them out of the end zone for the most part. But that was entirely too many yards, so big plays during that game saved us. But we can't play like that every week, and we understand that, and we want to be a team that stops the run. That has to be who we are, because that is the foundation of a good defense."
Terps senior nose tackle Darius Kilgo said it's always comforting to see Johnson on the UMD backline. He said he saw Johnson doing his usual thing of being disruptive against Syracuse last week.
"Even off the field, you always feel comfortable he knows what he's doing," Kilgo said. "He's a guy that's always on top of things. I am very excited for him to get back out there because I know how much it's been a thing for him to do. And I know he is going to make plays."
Terps senior center and fellow council member Sal Conaboy had much the same to add about the always upbeat senior, who never got down despite his backup status:
"To be honest, his attitude has always been positive. You can't really tell what's going on with him because he is such a positive guy, such a great leader," Conaboy said. "To see him get after a little bit again up there at Syracuse, that was fun to watch."
Johnson said everything from tackling better, including running to the ball more effectively, must improve on the now-patchwork unit that has a lot of young players and deep backups mixed in due to the injuries. Coleman will present big problems this week if Maryland isn't sure with its tackling.
"He's a great back," Johnson said. "You see him on film, and he's running through arm tackles so you can't be using bad technique. And finishes his runs as well. So to come in and tackle him you definitely got to come in with your mind right."
And now Johnson and Co. will be taking him on in IU's backyard for Maryland's first Big Ten game.
"It's exciting, man. I think everybody in this program is excited," Johnson said. "Not necessarily to prove everyone else wrong, but to prove to ourselves we belong in this league, we can play in this league. So we are confident in who we are and what we do, and Coach [Randy] Edsall has been harping on that this week: if we play our game we'll come out of Indiana victorious."
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