Johnson starts for Bengals

Wes Watt

For former Hilltopper Jeremi Johnson, a typical Sunday consists of spending quality time with friends and family, sleeping and going to church.

But April 27 was not a typical Sunday for Johnson. It was the second day of the National Football League draft, and Johnson was still waiting.

Waiting after he woke up, Johnson was surrounded by his mother and a couple friends.

Then the phone rang.

On the other end of the line were the Cincinnati Bengals. The Bengals wanted to let him know his name was going to be called. Just minutes later, Cincinnati made Johnson its second selection in the fourth round.

“I didn’t think they were going to pick me,” Johnson said. “I kept hearing things. I really didn’t know. I was kind of upset. I just knew I was going to get picked in the third round.”

Johnson’s drafting follows a short but impressive stint at Western. The 5-foot-11-inch, 263-pound fullback was a key cog in the run to the national championship last season.

After fighting flu-like symptoms before the title game, Johnson collected a career-high 90 receiving yards. He also scored the first touchdown of the national championship game.

But those are distant memories for Johnson. He’s now sweating through an NFL season. But he’s doing it as the starting fullback for the Bengals. Johnson signed a three-year contract in July, but terms were undisclosed.

Before the Bengals used a draft pick on the fullback, Houston and St. Louis, along with Cincinnati, requested workouts from Johnson. The Rams showed the most interest and even told him that if he were still available in the third round they would pick him up. But Johnson quickly learned that the NFL is a business – far different from his days on the Hill.

“The draft is a crazy process,” Johnson said. “I learned a lot about the NFL and football.”

While playing football is a full-time job, Johnson said it is still easier than being a student athlete.

In college Johnson said he had to spend half his time on school and half his time on football. Now, because he doesn’t have to go to class, he can spend all his time on football.

“It’s easier,” Johnson said. “We get in at 6 o’clock in the morning and we don’t leave until 5 o’clock that night. This is a job. Your studies really don’t stop, but you’re studying football, not English class.”

Despite making at least six figures, Johnson is still considered a blue-collar player.

“I’m comfortable to do whatever,” he said. “I accept the role I’m in. I feel I am ready. I have been coached up to play on Sunday.”

When Johnson transferred to Western from Indiana before last season, he had to learn a whole new playing system with new teammates. Johnson said that experience was a big help to him in his transition from college to pro.

“I feel it helped me a lot,” Johnson said. “It shows I can adjust and learn the system under pressure. It shows how I can overcome adversity.”

That experience alone is not enough to carry Johnson to the next level. He must learn from veteran players and coaches.

And he’s already started.

Johnson has developed a special relationship with running backs coach Jim Anderson and credits him for his quick development.

But coaches are not the only place Johnson turns. He also turns to running backs Corey Dillon and Brandon Bennett. Johnson said their experience has been invaluable to him.

Johnson had over 900 all-purpose yards for Western last season, and in four preseason games and a regular season game with the Bengals he has a total of 24 yards.

Anderson said Johnson has worked very hard over the preseason to get better, and he has fit into the system very well.

“He really wants to be good at this level,” Anderson said. “He’s a tremendous athlete, he’s a coachable athlete.

“He’s the guy that will be leading the way. He has taken that role. Right now he has done a wonderful job.”

Reach Wes Watt at [email protected]