Taking on a new position, J. Johnson strives to fit in

Raven needed at linebacker with injuries to Thomas, Cody

August 11, 2005|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

Injuries have taken out the Ravens' top two strong-side linebackers, forcing the team to dig a little deeper into its roster.

So it comes as no surprise that they will fill that void with Jarret Johnson, the "dirty-shirt player" from the University of Alabama.

Rolling up his sleeves, the no-frills backup lineman will make his first start at outside linebacker after one full week of practicing at his new position. The Ravens believe Johnson can replace injured linebackers Adalius Thomas and Dan Cody because of his tenacity.

"Knowing Jarret, he will use it as a motivating factor," defensive coordinator Rex Ryan said. "He's going to give everything he's got to get the job done."

Asked who instilled that never-say-quit attitude, the gravelly-voiced, scruffy-faced Johnson said it was his mother.

When Johnson was 7, his mother had to begin raising him and his older sister by herself. His father, a commercial fisherman in Florida, was lost at sea when his boat sank.

The tragedy led his mother to attend nursing school and then drive 160 miles round trip to the hospital, where she worked 12-hour shifts.

"I've never seen anybody work like she'd work," Johnson said. "I've always thought, `It doesn't matter how hard I work, I'll never work as hard as the person I grew up around.' "

Johnson's relentlessness has made the 2003 fourth-round pick one of the Ravens' most reliable role players. Admittedly not as "blessed" as his teammates, he doesn't have ideal size (6 feet 3, 285 pounds) or speed.

But when he gets blocked, he turns around and makes another play. When he gets knocked down, he quickly jumps back up.

This nonstop effort is why the Ravens don't forget about him. After Thomas and Cody went down with knee injuries, the Ravens decided to find a way to put their best 11 players on the field. And Johnson was one of them.

"He's a throwback player and it's not just the way he looks," Ryan said. "He's going to outwork you. Eventually, you're going to be like, `If I let up once, Jarret is going to make me pay for it.' "

Johnson's time at linebacker likely will extend beyond this week.

Thomas, who hyperextended his right knee Tuesday, has been ruled out for Saturday but is considered day-to-day. Cody, who severely sprained his right knee nine days ago, has yet to be re-evaluated, although he is expected to miss the entire season.

Even with this injury situation, the Ravens still will use Johnson at defensive end, interchangeably rotating Terrell Suggs back to linebacker.

For Johnson, the difficult part of the transition to linebacker is defending the pass. Although his most memorable moment as a Raven came against the pass - he intercepted a throw that he deflected in last season's finale and ran it back 6 yards for a touchdown - he has only had to go forward as a lineman.

"I'm a confident guy so I feel like I can play anywhere - even though I can't," Johnson said. "If you took a big linebacker and stuck him out at safety, it would be the same adjustment. I have no clue [about this position] because I never dropped back. It's all learning. Today is the most comfortable I've felt since I've been doing it."

Off the field, Johnson is comfortable at living up to the stereotypes of the South.

He enjoys fishing and hunting. He likes country music. He even drives a red pickup truck.

"I'm not trying to hide who I am," Johnson said.

Where Johnson tends to hide is on the field. The other day, a coach looked Johnson up and down and joked, "They never see you coming."

Johnson never shies away from the label of being an overachiever. In fact, he seems to embrace it.

"I never take anything for granted," Johnson said. "Every time I look up and see Ray Lewis calling the play and see Kelly Gregg standing next to me in the huddle, sometimes I turn around and think, `This is pretty cool.' "

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