SALT LAKE CITY — When Jason Shelley joined the Utah football program in 2017 out of Little Elm, Texas, the quarterback gave an incoming freshman from Fresno, California, as big of a compliment as he possibly could.

As far as Shelley is concerned, Jaylon Johnson hasn’t let him down yet.

“I told him at first, ‘You’re the best player Utah’s ever had,’” Shelley recalled of a conversation he had with Johnson a couple of years ago. “I think he’s coming out here and trying to make that a statement and trying to make plays.”

It wasn’t the last lofty compliment the junior cornerback has received.

“Honestly, it just comes down to film study and being disciplined and being true to the technique and the play call.” — Utah cornerback Jaylon Johnson

During Monday’s press conference, Ute coach Kyle Whittingham described Johnson’s play as simply, “Outstanding.” That certainly didn’t come as a surprise to safety Julian Blackmon, who called Johnson “the best corner in the nation, easily” during fall camp. In addition, Utah cornerbacks coach Sharrieff Shah told the Deseret News this summer that he coaches Johnson “unbelievably hard” because he expects a lot from a guy he believes is among the best players at his position.

“I love everything about him,” Shah said before the season started.

There’s even more to love about the guy who was named first-team All-Pac-12 as a sophomore and is an All-American contender.

During Utah’s 21-3 defensive masterpiece against Arizona State, Johnson’s primary assignment, Brandon Aiyuk, only had one reception for seven yards. The 6-foot, 195-pound athlete played well against his assigned receiver, Isaiah Hodgins, at Oregon State, too. He leads the Utes with eight pass breakups to go with 21 tackles and one interception.

Johnson’s play in the defensive backfield factored into the dominant Utes only allowing Arizona State to pass for 25 yards. Not that he’ll take the credit for that, mind you.

“Honestly, that’s hats off to the D-line. They were getting ridiculous pressure and the quarterback couldn’t really look down the field,” Johnson said. “It was an overall team effort. We were getting to the quarterback and we were covering for as long as we can, and they were getting stops.”

That combination — stifling coverage in the backfield, punishing penetration up front and stellar play from the linebackers — is why Utah has one of the stingiest defenses in the nation. The 12th-ranked Utes, who host California on Saturday night, are only giving up an average of 252.1 yards (fourth-best) and 11.7 points (sixth) per outing.

Ute opponents have only converted on 18.4% of third-down opportunities while giving up just 23 points in recent wins over Washington State, Oregon State and Arizona State.

“Honestly,” Johnson said, “it just comes down to film study and being disciplined and being true to the technique and the play call.”

Having lockdown defensive players like Johnson certainly helps, too.

In 32 games at Utah, Johnson has made 87 tackles, six interceptions and 24 pass deflections. Even if he doesn’t end up being the best player in Ute history — as Shelley predicted — he’s certainly among the top cornerbacks to ever come through the program.

“As I’ve said so many times, that is such a weapon for a defensive coordinator to have — the ability to take something away, not hope, but just knowing that it is going to be taken away,” Whittingham said of Johnson’s suffocating coverage. “(Aiyuk) had that one catch for seven or eight yards and that was it, and that is attributed to Jaylon.”

Whittingham also credited the front four for putting ASU’s talented freshman QB, Jayden Daniels, “on the run” all game. That makes the secondary’s job easier.

Johnson said he takes pride in every matchup, but he has enjoyed going one-on-one against the last couple of opponents’ best receivers instead of just taking whoever lines up against him on his side of the field.

“It’s fun. I know I’m going to get some targets because they’re the guy,” Johnson said. “It was just a fun challenge and interesting to go against those top guys in the conference and be able to play D against those guys.”

Johnson called Cal’s receivers “solid, scrappy guys,” so he’s expecting to have a physical challenge at Rice-Eccles Stadium this weekend as the Utes try to keep in the Pac-12 South race.

Even though Johnson has proven to be a nuisance for receivers, Shelley expects teams will continue to test him.

“I think everybody wants a piece of him,” said Shelley, explaining that’s what happens in practice. “Everybody knows the caliber of player he is, so everybody comes and brings in their best work to see how they compare to a top-tier corner who I think will be the first corner taken in the (NFL) draft next year. I think guys want to go after him, even quarterbacks.”

That doesn’t guarantee success, of course. Just ask the Beavers and Sun Devils.

“He makes things hard for (offenses). He makes us work. Jaylon’s a great player to have. I just love him,” Shelley said. “I’ve seen a baller (this fall). I’ve seen a dude who’s trying to get paid.”

Though he’s been seen jawing at opponents from time to time — what cornerback hasn’t? — Johnson said he’s not the one who initiates trash-talking conversations. He’s certainly not lacking in confidence or results, though.

“There’s nothing for me to talk about,” Johnson said. “We both see the stats and we both know what’s going on in the game, so there’s nothing really to talk about — unless they talk first, then we’ll go at it.”

California (4-3, 1-3) at No. 12 Utah (6-1, 3-1)

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Rice-Eccles Stadium

Saturday, 8 p.m.


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