I’ve seen him smile more the last 10 days than probably I’ve seen over the last year. He sees the light at the end of the tunnel finally. That’s fun for me to see. —BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall, on Jordan Johnson
PROVO — Since suffering a season-ending knee injury while returning a kick during fall camp last August, BYU cornerback Jordan Johnson has traveled an arduous and lonely path.
“It takes a toll on you mentally,” Johnson said before adding, “I’m past all that.”
These days, he’s focusing on the present, and the future. Johnson is looking forward to his return to field corner for his senior season, which kicks off Aug. 29 at UConn — not far from where he grew up in Springfield, Mass.
Johnson’s coaches say he has endured plenty of adversity during the past year.
“I don’t think I could tell you what the trial has been like. He’s been hanging on by a thread through most of it, to be honest,” said coach Bronco Mendenhall. “He’s a long ways from home. To not be included on our team, not being able to play, with a knee injury that he’s still recovering from, and feeling kind of excluded from the team and dealing with this unique culture, yeah, he’s had a really hard time. I’ve seen him smile more the last 10 days than probably I’ve seen over the last year. He sees the light at the end of the tunnel finally. That’s fun for me to see.”
Defensive coordinator and secondary coach Nick Howell is also glad to have Johnson back on the field.
“That was a long year. I think there was a time when he got down and felt like he wasn’t part of the team and a little disconnected,” Howell said. “In the spring, he was working his way back. It’s hard to watch spring practice. He felt like he wasn’t part of what we were doing and it’s frustrating. But I’ve seen the past two or three months him stepping in with leadership and getting ready to go. He wants this senior year more than anything. He wants to help his team.”
Johnson has been cleared to participate in fall camp, which starts Aug. 1.
“I’m back to 100 percent,” Johnson said. “I’m continuing to strengthen my knee and doing rehab for preventative measures. I feel good. Physically, I’m ready. I’ve been working hard in the weight room. I’m squatting more or the same as some of our linebackers. As far as the mental aspect, that just takes time. I feel 100 percent with my knee as far as what I can do. Once I got that go-ahead to participate in seven-on-seven, I took that head-on and I haven’t stopped. I’m just excited for fall camp.”
Mendenhall is a little more cautious about Johnson’s health.
“I’d say he’s close, but he’s not back all the way yet,” he said. “He’s going to need every day this month and probably every day through training camp to be ready for UConn. Then we’ll have a great idea. He still has some ground to close and he’s going to have to work hard to make that happen. But we both think it’s possible.”
As a junior in 2012, Johnson started every game, recording 48 tackles, 15 pass breakups, one interception and a fumble recovery. When he went down with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in fall camp, it was a big blow for the defense.
What does it mean for the defense to have Johnson — who is proven at one-on-one coverage — back?
“It’s not only experience, it’s ability,” Mendenhall said. “If you can leave him by himself, wow. That’s like going to Disneyland in terms of a defensive coordinator.”
Johnson is eyeing a big year for himself, and for his team, in 2014.
“I want to have an even better season than I did my sophomore year. I’m going to approach this year as not taking things for granted,” he said. “You can be playing one day and not playing the next. That’s what happened to me. I’m approaching this year with no regrets and giving it my all. As far as a team, of course we want to go undefeated. From (what) everyone is saying, this is the year we could sweep the table and go undefeated. That would be great in my last year to do something like that and make that dream a reality. I feel with all the hard work we’ve been doing in the offseason, we could do that.”
Linebacker Manoa Pikula can’t wait to play with Johnson — and returning starter Robertson Daniel, who is expected to man the boundary corner spot.
“I’m excited for him. It builds a lot of confidence for our team, knowing we have Jordan back, and that we have Rob at corner,” Pikula said. “With our DBs being as good as they are, I feel like it’s going to give us that extra second for (linebackers) Bronson Kaufusi or Alani Fua to get that sack or get a good pass rush. I’m excited to see Jordan come back. He’s looking stronger than I’ve ever seen him.”
For Johnson, it’s fitting that he’ll open his senior year so close to home.
“It’s 35 or 40 minutes away from where I grew up,” he said. “It’s going to be cool. After a year away from playing, my first game will be back home. My mother and father and friends and family will be there — a lot of people who haven’t gotten a chance to see me play. And it’s my last year. It’s kind of symbolic.”