IOWA CITY — After arriving at Iowa as a cornerback, D.J. Johnson sees this as a move that will pay off.
The redshirt freshman is moving into Iowa’s “cash’’ position on defense, the name Hawkeye coaches gave the hybrid linebacker/safety role filled last season by Amani Hooker, and Johnson said he is ready to create his own success at a spot where Hooker thrived last fall.
“Amani was made for that spot and I feel like I can do a lot of the same type of things that made it work for him,’’ Johnson said at Iowa’s recent media day.
The position is designed as a counter to today’s spread offenses, shifting a player with greater quickness into the box capable of covering a receiver but also has the grit needed to provide support in run defense.
“It’s a job I know I am capable of handling, a place on the field that I really fit,’’ Johnson said. “We have so much depth at corner and this gives me a chance to have a role of my own.’’
Johnson likes the myriad of responsibilities that accompany playing the position.
“It tests you, being able to deal not only with the receivers like you would at corner but having to step inside when you’re needed to stop the run,’’ Johnson said. “It’s a tough position to play, but I like the challenge that is part of it. It’s a job I know I’m going to get down and do well at.’’
Hooker provided a bigger body at the position, standing 6-foot and weighing 210 pounds, while Johnson is 5-10 and 183.
“D.J. is a bit of a different body type there, but I feel like he is equally capable of handling what he needs to handle in that spot,’’ Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker said. “We don’t expect him to be Amani. We expect him to be D.J.’’
Senior Michael Ojemudia has also practiced at the position, but Johnson seems to be settling in there.
He was on the field with the first unit whenever Iowa shifted into a 4-2-5 look at last weekend’s Kids at Kinnick Day open practice.
Johnson had a chance to defend against both the pass and the run in that situation, something that will become the norm as he settles into the position.
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The Indianapolis native arrived at Iowa as a 165-pound cornerback after twice earning all-county honors at North Central High School, attracted to the Hawkeye program because of the success of players like Desmond King and Josh Jackson.
Johnson saw himself filling that role at the collegiate level, but with the success Hooker had a year ago while earning Big Ten defensive back of the year honors the more intrigued Johnson became with the cash position.
He said he is still getting used to playing in the box at times, learning the edge it takes to be effective in defending the run.
“I’m still learning there but I’m also really enjoying it,’’ Johnson said. “It’s been fun to play in the box because you are around the ball a lot. I’ve figured out that you have to be good on your feet, though, because the big guys will come out and pull and you have to get off those blocks and set the edge.’’
He’s learned that one block at a time.
“There have been a couple of times when I’ve gotten knocked on my butt, especially when I was first working out there,’’ Johnson said. “Now, I’m getting the chance to return the favor and knock a couple of those guys on their butt.’’
It’s becoming everything that Johnson hoped it would be.
He maintained his redshirt year while playing in just three games last season as a true freshman, the start to his collegiate career slowed by a hamstring injury.
Johnson took the field against Penn State, Illinois and Mississippi State, providing him a taste of what to expect now.
“It was good to be out there and get an idea of what it’s all about. It showed me that I needed to continue to work with (strength and conditioning coordinator Chris) Doyle and his staff to continue to get stronger and get ready to handle things at the cash,’’ Johnson said.
“It’s a more physical position and I’m getting ready for it. I know what’s coming.’’