By Max Luckan
Leonard Johnson, CB, #29
Weight: 202 lbs.
Hometown: Clearwater, Florida
College: Iowa State
With thinning depth at the cornerback position, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have turned to rookie CB Leonard Johnson the past few weeks and have asked him to step-in and play. And he has responded by playing particularly well. Johnson played extensively for the first time two weeks ago against the Minnesota Vikings, which is when he recorded his first career interception. Then on Sunday against the Oakland Raiders, Johnson got significant reps because Eric Wright was banged up and E.J. Biggers didn’t play all that well.
Born in Clearwater, Florida, Johnson was a standout quarterback at Largo High School before moving on to play cornerback at Iowa State from 2008-2011.
While attending Iowa State as a freshman, Johnson set an NCAA record for most kick return yards in a game with 319 – in a single game. He started 43 out of the 50 games he played for Iowa State, racking up six interceptions and 247 tackles.
After declaring for the 2012 NFL Draft, Johnson was labeled as one of the best cornerback prospects in the entire draft. However, his draft stock plummeted when he posted a poor 4.72 seconds in the 40-yard dash at the combine. The poor time was a result of Johnson being ill days before the combine, and as a result, his performance was out of sorts.
Furthermore, Johnson’s coverage skills were questioned, as was his ability to cover physical receivers in the NFL. The latter was probably unjustified criticism, as Johnson did an excellent job on Justin Blackmon, who played for Oklahoma State and is now with the Jacksonville Jaguars and was the top receiver in the 2012 draft.
All that didn’t seem to faze Bucs GM Mark Dominik, who took a chance and signed him as an undrafted free agent. Sure enough, Johnson made the roster and has played a good amount in recent weeks.
And looking at the tape, it is apparent that Johnson is a physical corner, sure tackler, and has a knack for finding the ball. In the past two weeks alone, Johnson has two interceptions and has defended six passes, while racking up eight tackles. All that may not seem like a lot, but his contribution has flown way under the radar. Obviously, all the attention has been placed on Aqib Talib, who was eventually traded to New England, and Eric Wright, who could be suspended in the near future.
Sure, Johnson could be a little undersized. Yes, he’s a rookie and has only a little experience under his belt. But the thing that stands out and Tampa Bay head coach Greg Schiano would agree, is his work ethic and will to play the game and play it right. Saying Johnson will be one of the top cornerbacks in the league is, undoubtedly, premature, but his play in recent weeks shouldn’t be ignored.
The Bucs have been running out of options in the secondary, which hasn’t performed well by any means pretty much the whole season, but Johnson may be able to alleviate some of the pressure if he continues to do his job as a “Buccaneer Man.”
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Max Luckan is a freelance writer covering all things Tampa. Hia work can be found on Examiner.com.