A first start is a big thing in the career of any athlete. Not to downplay other venues, but a first start at night in Ohio Stadium is arguably bigger than most. That was the situation cornerbacks JK Johnson and Jyaire Brown found themselves in last Saturday night for the Buckeyes as they each secured their first career starts.
Johnson is a redshirt freshman who missed last season with an injury, and Brown is a true freshman who enrolled early so that he would be ready for just such an occasion.
Thanks to injuries to starting cornerbacks Denzel Burke and Cam Brown, as well as sophomore Jordan Hancock, the Buckeyes had to move further down the depth chart than they normally would. But it was okay because this wasn’t the first time Johnson had played this season, and Brown has been repping with the ones and twos throughout preseason camp.
Cornerbacks coach Tim Walton worked to get each of his players ready for a situation like this, and Brown and Johnson stepped up just like they had prepared to do.
Both graded out as champions following the game, which further shows just how ready to play they were.
“Yeah, I knew the time was gonna come at a certain point,” Johnson explained this week. “I just didn’t know when. So it was just really being patient and waiting for the opportunity to come.”
It was more than just waiting. Waiting implies doing little else. That was certainly not the case for Johnson and Brown, especially when you consider the amount of work they were able to get in practice over the last month. And it also doesn’t hurt when you go against a group of receivers like OSU’s “Zone 6.”
“They took a lot of reps this offseason during training camp. And those guys practice a lot, man, and we go against the best in the business every day at practice,” Walton said.
“So that preparation and getting them game-ready, we kind of see that at practice a lot every day. And then on top of that, that’s my job to try to make them calm and not bring any extra energy up. Just playing football. So we try to keep that understanding and go out and do what you’re trained to do. Because under pressure, the most ingrained behaviors come out. So we try to make sure we ingrained the behavior of how we play and just focus on doing our job one play at a time.”
The moment wasn’t too big for either cornerback. Both were told late in the week that they would be starting. Sure, there were a few nerves, but that’s natural. The nerves quickly dissipated and football took over.
“I wasn’t nervous,” Johnson said. “I was just anxious, ready to get on the field. I just wanted to feel it.”
“Man, it was amazing,” Brown said. “I’m just blessed. It was a blessful feeling. Just everything.”
The moments will live forever, but the moment quickly passed for both. Once the ball is snapped, the time for reflection is long gone.
“I was just out there,” Johnson said of his first start. “That’s all that I really wanted to do. So, I didn’t really have any expectations, but to just fly around and just do my job.”
Even though it was Johnson’s first start, he has actually played more snaps than any other Buckeye cornerback over the past three weeks. This wasn’t an entirely new experience.
For Brown, however, he had played a total of 27 snaps over the first three games. He essentially doubled that number against the Badgers, and showed the kind of confidence that lets his coaches know he can be counted on whenever necessary.
“I think that confidence comes from just practicing every day, going against the best receivers every day, seeing the best that you can see,” Brown said. “And then getting those games like that, or going against other opponents, kind of neutralizes that because we see the best in the business every day in Zone 6. So I just try to use that to my advantage and prepare as if nobody else we play is as as good as Zone 6.”
The confidence wasn’t just an internal feeling. It was external as well.
“It just really built our confidence, knowing that everybody believes in us to go out there,” Johnson said. “And that being our first start. So just having the team around us, that plays a long way into it too.”