Jermaine Johnson adjusts from 'Last Chance U' stardom to limitations at Georgia

Georgia junior outside linebacker Jermaine Johnson closes in on Texas A&M quarterback Kellen Mond last month in Athens. / Georgia photo by Andy Harrison

When LSU's offense took the field for the first time earlier this month at the Southeastern Conference championship game, Georgia countered with three defensive linemen, inside linebacker Monty Rice and a whopping seven defensive backs.

That relegated Georgia's deepest position, the outside linebacker spots headed by redshirt freshman Azeez Ojulari and including five-star freshman Nolan Smith and junior college transfer Jermaine Johnson, to more time on the sideline than on other Saturdays throughout this season for the 11-2 Bulldogs, who are headed to a second consecutive Sugar Bowl.

"We come in on Sunday after a game, and on Monday we come up with a new game plan for the next game we have," Johnson said after the 37-10 loss to the Tigers. "Sometimes you're just not in that game plan much for that particular week, but we've bought into everything. Whatever the coaches say, we trust, because we know they want to win."

Less playing time was the biggest adjustment that Johnson, a 6-foot-5, 240-pound junior from Eden Prairie, Minnesota, faced this season after starring the previous two years at Independence (Kansas) Community College. Johnson was a two- or three-star prospect coming out of high school, depending on the recruiting service, but thrived at Independence, racking up 96 tackles, 19 tackles for loss, 12.5 sacks, four forced fumbles and four fumble recoveries in just 20 games.

His two seasons at Independence were detailed in the Netflix series "Last Chance U," which made Johnson a recognized face in more than just college football circles.

"I've had a lot of people from around the world - Australia and France - who will DM (direct message) me and tell me that I was their inspiration," Johnson said. "That really feels good, because I did put in a lot of hard work there. Aside from that, though, I was never too worried about dealing with any kind of fame. I'm doing this to help the people I love, and I obviously love this team. I want to help this team get to where we want to go.

"Everything you pretty much see on the show was how it was. I loved that experience. I think it humbles you, and I think I needed it. I think it helped make me into the player I am today."

Johnson arrived last December dealing with a foot injury and in spring practice developed an ankle injury that still was hindering him at the start of preseason camp. At outside linebacker, he was vying with Ojulari, Smith, Walter Grant, Robert Beal and Adam Anderson. Beal entered the NCAA transfer portal earlier this month.

When discussing Johnson at the start of the season, Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart said, "He's had to fight for opportunities to get reps. There are some dudes competing over there."

Johnson has played in all 13 games this season, tallying 19 tackles, three tackles for loss and two sacks. He pressured Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book on the Fighting Irish's final fourth-and-8 pass play in Georgia's 23-17 win on Sept. 21, and he had a sack of Kellen Mond last month in the 19-13 win over Texas A&M.

His most memorable showing took place in last month's 21-14 win at Auburn, when he recorded four tackles and caused a second-quarter fumble by Tigers quarterback Bo Nix.

"Going up against our O-line every day was a blessing, because I think they're the best O-line in the nation," Johnson said. "They're great, and competing against them helps you perfect your technique. I'm just glad I've had the chance to grow closer to my teammates and had a shot at the national championship.

"Sadly, we fell short of that, but we still had a great season and are looking forward to this bowl game."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524. Follow him on Twitter @DavidSPaschall.