Linebacker Jermaine Johnson is coming into his own for Georgia

If Jermaine Johnson had to do it all again, he’d do things the same way.

Going to junior college at Independence (Kan.) Community College after high school in Eden Prairie, Minn. Choosing Georgia after his two years at Independence, where he became the No. 1 junior-college prospect in the country. All of it, he’d do again.

“I loved coming to the University of Georgia,” Johnson said Tuesday. “I’d probably do it all the same again. I loved it here.”

The senior outside linebacker has seen a leap in production his second season with the Bulldogs. Last year, an injury early in preseason camp limited his effectiveness early in the season and though Johnson appeared in all 14 games, he wasn’t producing at the level Georgia’s coaches expected when they brought him to Athens.

“Any time you go to the junior college ranks, you want to get a phenomenal player that can impact your team immediately,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. “He had an injury early in camp the first year he got here. He had like a high-ankle sprain, and it really slowed him down in terms of developing and getting better.”

Through six games this season, Johnson already has four sacks, against only 2.5 last season. His 16 total tackles is four less than his total of 20 from last season, but on a per-game basis, he’s averaging just over one more tackle per game.

“I think he’s just starting to really come into his own,” said Smart, whose No. 9 Bulldogs play at Missouri at noon Saturday. “He’s gotten more and more comfortable with our calls and our games and our pass-rush stuff. He’s rushed more this year. Last year, he and (junior outside linebacker) Adam (Anderson) were spying more times than they were rushing, and now they’re rushing more on the whole. He’s doing a nice job of that, so very pleased with his growth.”

In addition to his growth in production, Smart lauded Johnson for his leadership, particularly on the practice field. Johnson credited his defensive coordinator at Independence, Jason Martin, for his practice habits.

“He would always say fake enthusiasm brings real enthusiasm,” Johnson said. “Because it’s easy in week 10, 11, 12, you just get in a slump and you get tired and you don’t really want to be there sometimes. So you just go out there, and even if it’s fake enthusiasm, people will feed off that and then the team will be on the up-and-up and everybody will want to practice and make practice fun.

“You just make sure people want to be there. Keep a smile on your face. It’s not all business. Sometimes you’ve gotta bring the fun into it because that’s a big reason why people fell in love with the game.”

In a video feature put out by the Bulldogs last month, Johnson spoke of his love for football and how he nearly lost his ability to play coming out of high school. Because of academic issues, he didn’t have a Power 5 offer and had to go the junior college route. That gives him additional perspective on what a privilege it is to play football, particularly in the SEC, and his grasp on that was clear as he spoke about his journey.

Johnson’s first season at Georgia may not have gone as he’d dreamed, but in his second he’s grown into the player that Smart and defensive coordinator Dan Lanning hoped they were getting. And despite everything he’s been through on his way to the Bulldogs, he’d do it all again.

“I feel like I’ve done pretty well here,” Johnson said. “Some things could’ve went a little better, but you can’t get everything your way. Just take advantage of the opportunities and make the most of it.”

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