Two years ago at this time, Kansas University linebacker Steven Johnson had just 10 career tackles and was a relative unknown in college football.
Today, he’s in Indianapolis going through the first of a four-day stay at the NFL combine, a tell-all football job interview that tests the speed, strength and smarts of the top college players in the country.
Johnson led the Jayhawks in tackles during each of the last two seasons — 95 in 2010 and 124 in 2011, which ranked him 16th in the nation.
Like most things during the former walk-on’s football career, the invitation did not come without some adversity. When the initial list of invitees came out in early January, Johnson’s name was not on it. Following the advice of his agent, Johnson called to inquire about his status and was told that combine officials were waiting for the list of juniors eligible for the NFL Draft to be finalized before completing the list. A few weeks and several prayers later, Johnson officially received his invitation. With one goal fulfilled, Johnson immediately began working on his next.
“Getting invited to the combine is big,” he said. “I’ve been watching the combine ever since high school. It’s something I’ve just worked hard for ever since I first started playing football. But I still have to go out and perform. It’s kind of like a reward for having a good season.”
The combine began Wednesday. Because it showcases the skills of 329 athletes, that number is divided into different groups, and each makes its way through the week in stations. Johnson, who will wear bib number LB16, will be grouped with the rest of the linebackers. They’ll be on the same schedule with all of the defensive lineman.
After arriving in Indianapolis Thursday, Johnson will get rolling with his combine experience today. First up is registration, orientation and a handful of medical exams. On Saturday, Johnson will go through a series of measurements, more exams, a media session and psychological testing. Sunday, his group will attend a meeting with the NFL Players Association and a series of interviews. And Monday will be showtime.
That’s the day Johnson will run through all of the workouts, timing stations and skills tests. This portion of the combine will be shown on the NFL Network at 8 a.m. and again at 7 p.m.
Coaches, scouts and team doctors from all 32 NFL teams all will be on hand for the workouts. Included among the physical drills Johnson will perform are: bench-press tests, 10-, 20- and 40-yard dashes, vertical-jump tests, broad-jump tests and agility drills such as the 20- and 60-yard shuttle drills and cone drills, which measure lateral quickness and body control.
Johnson has spent the last several weeks working out in Arizona with Mo Streety of the Arizona Cardinals, who has trained such NFL stars as Darrell Revis, Roddy White and Terrell Suggs. The former KU linebacker not known for his wheels said he’s hoping to showcase his improved speed more than anything.
“I know a lot of people want to see my 40 time,” he said. “They’re expecting me to run a 4.75 or something like that, and out here training I’ve already done way better than that. Right now I’m in that 4.5-4.6 range. By the time (KU’s) pro day (March 14) hits, I might be able to get a 4.49.”
As for the other most popular drill, Johnson said he hoped to get 20 or more reps of 225 pounds in the bench press.
More than anything, Johnson said he hoped to convince scouts that he was the total package.
“Coach (Vantz) Singletary (the former KU and San Francisco 49ers linebackers coach) always told me, ‘Make sure you’re up to date on all your coverages and stuff like that because before you even get to workout those guys are gonna get you in a room, sit down with you and ask you a bunch of questions,’” Johnson said. “So I kind of have to be on top of my stuff mentally and physically.
“I’m just gonna go out there and do my best and put everything I have into it. If you do your best, you can’t be upset with yourself when you come out of there.”