Coach Kyle Whittingham long ago had decided that his freshman cornerback had what it takes to play in the NFL. But it took him a couple of weeks after Jaylon Johnson set foot on the Utah campus to figure out which player he reminded him of.
“Eric Weddle,” Whittingham said. “Eric Weddle was in our program, and he was all-business, just had a great focus and determination about him. There are a lot of personality traits that Jaylon and Eric share. . . . They’re very, very similar in how they approach things.”
As the Utes’ defensive coordinator, Whittingham recruited Weddle, who became a two-time Mountain West Conference defensive player of the year. Like Johnson, Weddle was a second-round pick. The safety retired in February after six Pro Bowls in 13 seasons — nine with the Chargers, three with the Ravens and last year with the Rams — and almost $70 million in career earnings.
Weddle might be the greatest defender in modern Utah history.
That’s high praise for Johnson, then.
“Oh, yeah, absolutely,” Whittingham said. “He’s in good company.”
Whittingham, Utah’s head coach for the last 15 years, doesn’t deal in hyperbole. But he swears that he saw an NFL future in Johnson when he sat in his family’s Fresno, California, living room on a recruiting visit.
Johnson laid out his goals to Whittingham: He’d play three seasons before leaving early for the draft and would participate in summer school so he’d graduate in 2½ years.
“Those NFL guys have a certain look to them, a certain way they carry themselves,” said Whittingham, whose father, Fred, coached in the NFL for 15 years. “He had it. It was very apparent to us that we had a great one when we signed him.
“He lived up to every expectation. He came into our program, had a tremendous work ethic, was intense, focused. Obviously, the physical talent was there. He was
a great student.”
Everything went according to plan, Whittingham said, except for the shoulder problems. After unwittingly playing with a torn labrum in his right shoulder last year, Johnson had surgery shortly after the NFL Scouting Combine. He’s expected to be ready to practice in early August.
“My shoulder is fixed, and I’m ready to go,” Johnson, who had two surgeries on his left shoulder earlier in his career, said last month.
Were it not for the surgery on his right shoulder, the Bears might not have had a chance to get anywhere near Johnson with the 50th pick in the draft.
“I’m confident there’s going to be no hindrance at all,” Whittingham said. “The NFL guys, they always worry about certainties and those types of things. So I guess there’s justification in where he got taken.
“But he’s definitely a first-round talent.”
The Bears envision the 6-foot, 193-pound Johnson as a physical press cornerback who’ll start across from two-time Pro Bowl player Kyle Fuller. He merely has to beat out Kevin Toliver, who has two career starts; former CFL player Tre Roberson; and Steelers 2016 first-round pick Artie Burns, who played only 66 defensive snaps in 2019.
“He uses his strength to his advantage, to reroute receivers,” general manager Ryan Pace said last month. “Jaylon is a really intelligent player, plays the game with excellent instincts and awareness. You can see it in the way he plays. . . .
“This is a guy who is driven and passionate. [There are] a lot of stories about his work ethic and just his professional approach to the game.”
Those come from Whittingham, who uses the words “meticulous,” “organized” and “structured” to describe Johnson.
“I just know what type of guy succeeds in that league,” Whittingham said. “And Jaylon is that guy.”