Jermaine Johnson may only be in his second season with the Jets in the NFL, but he speaks like a man with the wisdom of someone older than his 24 years.
Part of it is the result of becoming the father of an infant daughter. Part of it has been a personal journey that has taken him from his native Eden Prairie, MN, to community college in Kansas, then on to playing ball at Georgia for a year, then Florida State (where he was the ACC Defensive Player of the Year) and finally a new home in Northern New Jersey.
Some talk about "location, location." But for Johnson it's really about motivation, motivation.
"I've challenged myself, but I'm still not where I want to be," he told vice president, news strategy Eric Allen on this week's edition of "The Official Jets Podcast."
Like so many college players landing in the NFL, it's a dream come true that comes along with many sobering moments. Johnson, one of the Jets' three first-round picks in the 2022 NFL Draft (No. 26 overall), said he was caught up in a whirlwind before ever taking a regular-season snap.
"It's crazy," he said. "As a rookie you're usually done late in November. I got that December  to spend with family. As soon as that's over, you train for the Combine, then it's the Combine, a Pro Day in March then you travel to all these teams that want to talk to you. Get drafted, the night I got drafted I flew here, then flew back to pack stuff. Rookie minicamp, OTAs ... couldn't catch my breath.
"Things got real that first offseason. I gave myself some time to relax, then turned it on really in June, doing two workouts a day, four days a week then to camp. It was a breeze, I was ready, strong, did something right. You're freestyling, not like college. You're on your own. All these months, I didn't know if I was doing it right or wrong. Then in camp, I must be doing something right."
Drafted as an edge, Johnson was coming off an 11.5 sack season at Florida State. Landing with the Jets minus his favored No. 11 jersey (he wore No. 52 in his 14 games as a rookie), he played 312 snaps on defense (34%), had 2.5 sacks and also took 109 snaps on special teams. The goal during his first NFL offseason was to get stronger, quicker and more explosive.
Come the 2023 season, Johnson was able to get back into the No. 11, which only makes him seem taller than his listed height of 6-5. And now exclusively as a defensive end, Johnson prefers to rush from a standing up position, rather than a three-point stance.
"I have all the freedom in the world, the coaching staff trusts me, I operate in the framework of the defense," he said. "I appreciate it, they let me apply my game to the defense, not the other way around. You can't put players in a box and our staff does a great job of taking individual players and understanding that they do some things really good and planning the scheme to their strengths. I can see more when I can get up, it gives me freedom."
Eleven games (all starts) into Year 2, Johnson's 5 sacks are second on the team to Bryce Huff. Johnson has already surpassed last season's snap count (508, 66%), and has added 6 TFL, 4 PDs and a forced fumble.
"I don't know if it's my daughter or that I've got my girl now ... I don't know what it is," he said. "I worked my butt off in the offseason, just locked in. I hold myself to super-high standards. No one can critique or criticize me more than I do myself. As a team we're not in the position that we saw ourselves in. It doesn't sit well with me. There's six games left and I know the character of the guys we have in here. We're going to bust our tails and do what we need to do. I'm excited for the opportunity and the adversity we face. We'll find out who we truly are and who's around you when things are not looking good. You either have to punch up or curl up and I know we're going to punch up."
Johnson has emerged as an important piece on the Jets' dynamic and versatile defensive line. It's a deep and talented unit that has helped the Jets remain competitive in a challenging season. From the "gray beards" John Franklin-Myers, Quinton Jefferson, Al Woods and Carl Lawson, to the young up-and-comers Quinnen Williams, Will McDonald, Micheal Clemons and Huff, Johnson said that he's never been among a group as close and as supportive.
"It's a family," Johnson said. "It really makes the experience. Before I came into the league I heard about rooms that weren't great rooms. There are some with selfish guys in the room, but they're good players so you deal. We have none of those guys. It's really a family, all selfless and wanting to see each other win. It's all love. We're all excited whenever somebody gets a sack, we're all celebrating with each other, we all want each other to win. I'm extremely grateful.
"It's a tribute to the room. We all hold each other to a standard. I can't let these guys down, I have to uphold the same standard, the same attitude. Our D-line is feared, I believe that."
With the Jets (4-7) looking forward to six more games, with the Atlanta Falcons coming to MetLife Stadium on Sunday, Johnson said he and his teammates remain focused.
"It's difficult, it's not the first time I've been on a team with expectations and then you get punched in the mouth," he said. "At Florida State in 2021, we started 0-4, [and finished 5-7] and you have a decision to make. I could have said I'm only here one year, play well and get out. But you have a duty for your teammates and the organization.
"I'm going to still keep doing things the right way, it's what we're all willing to do. We will fix what we need to fix. We have warriors and people with good character and heart. I have all the faith in the world we're going to get this right."