SALT LAKE CITY — On the Friday night before Utah opened camp, sometime around 9, head coach Kyle Whittingham was in the football facility working. He ran into one of his players who was studying film in preparation for the upcoming season.
It was junior cornerback Jaylon Johnson, a returning first-team All-Pac-12 selection and an All-America candidate.
“That tells you the kind of dedication and attention to detail that he’s had all summer long,” said Whittingham, who acknowledged that this is an important year for Johnson and he’s working his tail off.
After leading Utah with four interceptions and ranking among the national leaders with 126 interception return yards in 2017, Johnson’s plans for an encore are focused on team success.
“First I want to win the Pac-12 South,” he said before noting that the Utes would like to redeem last year’s 10-3 loss to Washington in the conference championship game. That includes getting to the Rose Bowl or College Football Playoff this time around.
“We just want to go and compete with the best of them,” Johnson said.
The 6-foot, 190-pound defensive back from Fresno, California, is certainly one to help lead the charge. The former high school All-American has excelled at the college level. In 25 games at Utah, Johnson has made 66 tackles (54 solo) with 10 pass breakups, five interceptions (including a 100-yard return against Stanford in 2018) and two tackles for loss.
“He’s got the whole package as far as what you look for in a corner,” Whittingham said. “He’s got size, quickness, great hips, instincts, ball skills, great balance, great closing speed. When you put together an ideal corner, he’s the whole package.”
Whittingham isn’t the only one gushing about Johnson. He’s got a lot of folks in his corner.
“He’s the best. He’s the best corner in the nation, easily, and the reason he’s the best corner in the nation is because of the way he prepares,” said senior safety Julian Blackmon. “The way that he prepares is next to great.”
Blackmon added that Johnson proves his greatness every day.
“I’m just excited for him to keep making plays,” Blackmon said.
Utah cornerbacks coach Sharrieff Shah is also a big believer in Johnson.
“I humbly believe he is — if not one of the best, the best corner in the country — in my opinion. I’m expecting him to continue where he left off last year,” said Shah, who then reeled off attributes like Johnson’s insatiable appetite to learn and his smart approach to the game.
“I expect so much from him and he never bats an eye and never blinks. I love that. I’ve coached him unbelievably hard since I’ve recruited him out of California,” Shah said. “I’ve been even worse this fall camp and I told him I would be like that because I need to be. I need him to respond in the way he’s responding. So I love everything about that boy. I love everything about him.”
As Johnson prepares for what he says will be his final season of college ball, Shah noted that he’s becoming a better leader. One day after camp, Johnson got on a younger player about finishing a rep during some extra work. The growth in leadership is accompanied by a quest to continue being smart on the field. Shah is also encouraging work on Johnson’s vertical coverage, space tacking, and zone physicality in terms of reroutes.
“There’s so many things that he needs to do and so many folks have heralded him one of the best. I agree with them,” Shah said. “I just know as a coach there are still a lot of things to work on. We haven’t played one game or one opponent.”
Johnson’s focus is on the task at hand. Utah opens the season Aug. 29 at BYU.
“He’s got the right mindset,” Shah said of Johnson’s determination to win a Pac-12 title. “He’s so locked in.”
As for eventually playing in the NFL, Shah is confident good things await.
“I think that kid is going to be outstanding,” he explained. “Clearly he has the raw talents and attributes to be great at the next level. Clearly.”
Shah would know. He developed a great relationship with Johnson during the recruiting process. Things went so well, in fact, that the highly coveted athlete chose Utah over programs like Oklahoma and USC.
There’s some history as well. Shah’s older brother was teammates with Johnson’s father at Fresno State. Johnson, whom Shah says is one of the smartest players he’s ever coached, knows the cornerback position extremely well. His brother, John, played for UCLA.
The older sibling works with him and oversees a lot of his on-the-field training.
“We just hit the field hard and he always has a good plan for me,” said Johnson, who works on different things and techniques each day.
Despite all the accolades, including an early projection in the next NFL draft, Johnson vows to keep refining his game.
“For me, my skills are never where I want them to be because I always want to be perfect. I know I’m not going to be perfect so I will never say that I’m where I want to be,” he said. “But I’m definitely making good progress to be the best player I can be, and that’s all I can ask for right now.”
EXTRA POINTS: Whittingham said the first week of camp featured four really good practices. The best one came Saturday, he noted, after a physical session with less administrative penalties . . . Several newcomers have drawn praise early in camp — offensive linemen Marist Talavou, Sataoa Laumea and Johnny Maea, defensive back Aaron Lowe and running back Jordan Wilmore . . . Offensive lineman Bamidele Olaseni, a 6-foot-7, 332-pound junior college All-American, is expected to join the Utes this week.