'He's a playmaker': After rocky 2022, Jayden Johnson changed for the better

By: Scottie Bordelon Scottie Bordelon's Twitter account
Published: Friday, September 8, 2023
Arkansas defensive back Jayden Johnson (8) reacts after a play, Saturday, Sept, 2, 2023, during the first quarter of the Razorbacks’ 56-13 win over Western Carolina at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock. Visit nwaonline.com/photo for the photo gallery.
( Hank Layton)
Arkansas defensive back Jayden Johnson (8) reacts after a play, Saturday, Sept, 2, 2023, during the first quarter of the Razorbacks’ 56-13 win over Western Carolina at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock. Visit nwaonline.com/photo for the photo gallery.

FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas safety Jayden Johnson did not enjoy a banner season in 2022.

Statistically, he finished with a career-best 35 tackles in 12 games played, including 7 starts. But if you dive deeper into his numbers, positives are challenging to spot.

Pro Football Focus, a go-to source for college football analytics, was not high on the defensive back’s play as a sophomore. The website provided grades, placed on a scale from 0 to 100, last season for 32 defensive players who took the field for the Razorbacks.

Linebacker Drew Sanders, a transfer from Alabama who was selected in the third round of the 2023 NFL Draft, was No. 1 with an overall defense mark of 79.2. At the bottom, at No. 32 with a grade of 45.3, was Johnson.

Twenty-nine Arkansas defenders received a coverage grade. Johnson was last at 35.6. Thirty players were graded as tacklers and, again, he was last at 30.8 as a result of 14 missed tackles, which were third most on the team behind safety Hudson Clark and Sanders.

At season’s end, after the Razorbacks defeated Kansas in Memphis’ Liberty Bowl in late December, Johnson was considered by many to be a candidate to transfer. Ultimately, he didn’t. The decision opened conversation as to what his role might be under a largely new defensive staff led by coordinator Travis Williams and co-coordinator Marcus Woodson.

In preseason practices, particularly in the final weeks, few players were touted more by fourth-year head coach Sam Pittman and teammates than Johnson. No moment in fall camp stands above Pittman once approaching a few reporters during a late-August workout in Walker Pavilion and singing his praises.

“You wanna know who’s had a great camp?” Pittman asked. “Number eight. He’s everywhere.”

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In Arkansas’ season opener against Western Carolina, Johnson started at safety. And he carried his fall camp to Little Rock.

In the 56-13 victory over the Catamounts, Johnson tallied 5 tackles, 1 interception and 1 forced fumble in 40 snaps. PFF handed him an overall defense grade of 76.2, the best of his college career. He, too, received marks of 83.1 in tackling – best on the team – and 75.3 in coverage.

Pittman after the game said the improved play is a result of the safety changing his attitude about what he truly wanted and was willing to work for. Johnson has come a long way since last season.

“He's done really well,” Pittman added. “Ever since spring ball, he's done really well. He had to earn his spot. He’s playing good football. Very physical guy, and I've called him out in front of the team…about how [he has] changed.

“In life, if you're waiting for somebody else to change you, you're going to be left out.”

Johnson, 6-2 and 206 pounds, credited the Razorbacks’ defensive staff additions — secondary coach Deron Wilson included — for his improvement. In the opener, he picked off the first pass of his career and recorded his second forced fumble.

He had a hand in two of Arkansas’ five takeaways in the win.

“They helped a lot and just sat me down and talked to me about how I've got to be consistent,” Johnson said of the Razorbacks’ coaches. “That was something that I worked on during the offseason. And I got a lot stronger and faster. … I see myself as a starter. I just had to go out and prove it every day and stay consistent.

“I’ve just got to keep going.”

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Through his solid play in Week 1, Johnson got the attention of Kent State coach Kenni Burns. He was the first Razorbacks defensive player mentioned in Burns’ rundown of Arkansas’ personnel on Monday.

“I think it starts with their strong safety,” Burns said. “He’s all over the place when it comes to where they put him. But he’s a guy that obviously jumps out at you on tape. He does a good job tackling and getting to the ball.”

Jaheim Thomas, a transfer linebacker from Cincinnati, was not around Johnson and the Razorbacks in 2022, so he is unfamiliar with the defensive back’s past struggles. All he knows of Johnson in 2023 is he can be a massive help in the secondary should he remain focused.

“He’s a playmaker, man,” Thomas said. “He always brings juice to practice every day, so seeing him out there flying around, he’s a ballhawk, too. Just watching him make plays and just stay consistent…consistency is the main thing.

“Him being consistent and making plays is big for him.”

It is big for Arkansas as well. The Razorbacks were last in the FBS last season in pass defense, allowing 294.7 yards per game.

But with new playmakers like Lorando “Snaxx” Johnson, Al Walcott and Jaheim Singletary heavily in the mix alongside returners Dwight “Nudie” McGlothern, Clark and a locked-in Johnson, the back end of the Razorbacks’ defense could be enjoyable to watch for a change.

“He went into camp maybe a 1, maybe a 1B, whatever it is, and came out as good of a safety as we have,” Pittman said of Johnson. “A lot of good things happened with him. He’s always had the talent.

“His mind just allowed him here recently, here in the last six months, seven months, to go ahead and let that body do what it always could do.”


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