Throughout the spring, two relatively unfamiliar players patrolled the defensive backfield at safety for the Wisconsin Badgers.
Natrell Jamerson and Joe Ferguson exhausted their eligibility after last season, and redshirt senior D’Cota Dixon did not participate as he was recovering from right shoulder surgery. That opened a window for Scott Nelson and Patrick Johnson, both of whom are looking to start opposite Dixon this upcoming season, to receive extra reps as the “first-team” safeties.
For Johnson, who dealt with a frustrating and disappointing 2017 season due to injuries, the message was crystal-clear about being back on the field.
“I’m happy, so happy,” Johnson told B5Q in April. “I feel a lot different than I was [when I was] 100 percent healthy before the injuries. I feel a lot of improvements. I feel myself keep pushing new barriers and just keeping learning more things. I’m learning more about myself, learning more about my teammates and I just feel comfortable out here. I feel like I’m ready to play, to make something happen for this team, for all my brothers.”
As happy as the Washington, D.C., native is to be back on the field competing, last season was a difficult one to stomach. B5Q spoke with Johnson on two occasions in April about his rehab process and returning to action. Two injuries thwarted his attempt at a second full season, limiting him to only four games after playing in 13 as a true freshman in 2016.
“It’s a funny story,” Johnson said. “So starting off the season, I messed up my left AC joint in my left shoulder, so I missed the BYU week. When I came back healthy for Nebraska, and I come down on kickoff and make a tackle, I dislocate my right shoulder. So now I’m going through a whole year with two messed-up shoulders, trying to rehab on both, and trying to find the best way to get the same conditioning as everybody else, stay on their pace as well as rehab myself, so it was a tough battle and it takes a lot of tolls on you mentally.”
Johnson said he wasn’t allowed to run for 15 weeks during his recovery from the surgery, which was performed a week or two after the injury. He progressed to running in the pool for two weeks before returning to the field for some work, all while also working through limitations in overcoming the AC joint injury as well.
The injuries took a toll on Johnson’s mindset. He admitted going through a “depressed state,” and a “stressed-out state.” There was a point where he felt like he “lost it all,” lost himself, and forgot his purpose.
“I just let a lot of negative things and let a lot negative people into my life, and [that] caused me to make a lot of bad decisions,” Johnson said, noting some of those factors were related to academics and not staying in closer contact with football.
“Looking back at it, looking at the trials I went through and the adversity, I’m happy that it happened. Now when it happens in the future, and for future purposes and for conversations like this, I’m able to tell my story and help other people realize, like, everything is just all about what you see and what your mindset is.”
Johnson credits his teammates for helping him snap out of it.
“There was a lot of days I didn’t go on the field because I was sad but towards the end of the season, I started going to practices again and I started to have more fun,” Johnson said. “Even though I was limited to what I was able to do, watching them have fun made me one of the happiest people out there.”
There was also football academic advisor Aaron Stang, who Johnson specifically praised for helping him rebound from the rough stretch.
“I could always go up there and talk to him about anything because he helped me put the right people around me and helped me make the right decisions at times.”
Johnson recalled returning to the field with no limitations for the last couple of weeks of winter conditioning, a time he “felt relieved.”
“I felt like I was locked in a cage forever,” Johnson said, “and then once I was able to go out and run the field with my brothers and sweat and grind with them, a whole new door opened and I was like, ‘OK, now it’s time to attack this. It’s time to go.’”
During the spring, Johnson used his time to work on areas in the defensive backfield where he deemed he needed improvement, mostly in pass-defense situations.
“Right now, I’m putting myself into position to play more man coverage, to play more down in the box so I can put myself in positions to cover receivers, cover tight ends, and see where I’m at and see how I can work on my craft” Johnson said. “I also got to work on the post safety and free safety as well, but my biggest battle right now is being able to cover the receivers and stuff like that. I want that to be locked down.”
Williams, one of his teammates in the defensive backfield, took notice of Johnson’s work ethic. The redshirt sophomore corner told B5Q in April that Johnson did work early “every day, every practice.”
“He’s on the side, working on his back pedal, his breaking, and just really breaking his body down before practice, which you don’t see from a lot of guys,” Williams said. “You think, ‘Man, what is he doing over there?’ but he’s really just putting forth that extra time. Let’s say he’s doing that 10 minutes every practice, that’s 30 minutes a week. That’s 30 minutes you’re just putting in front of somebody else every month, every week, every year. It just adds up.”
Speaking to reporters in mid-April, Dixon said he believes Johnson will be a “great one” for the Badgers, noting his attachment to the team.
“Patrick’s one of those guys where he really loves the team and he really embodies putting the team first whether it be through special teams, package player, whatever it is, and you see that in his passion,” Dixon said. “I knew that because when he got hurt, you can see it and you can feel it, obviously talking to him, it crushes him. It’ll be great to have him back.”
Johnson’s experience on special teams will likely allow him to see the field again come Aug. 31 inside Camp Randall Stadium. On the defensive side of the ball, he knows there is competition at safety with Nelson, who earned co-defensive scout team player of the year honors last season alongside linebacker Griffin Grady. There is also redshirt sophomore and fellow mid-Atlantic native Eric Burrell, who earned in-conference reps last season with Dixon and Johnson out due to injury.
When asked about Nelson, who he partnered with often during those 15 spring practices, Johnson said he sees a competitor.
“I see a guy who’s ready to put work in and ready to complete the team and put us in the best position,” Johnson said. “We learn from each other, we help each other out. That’s what teammates are for, right? We’re here to push each other and put each other in the best positions possible to make plays. There’s no ease between one another. It’s all to push each other, so that’s all we focused on. We don’t care about who’s starting, what the roles are. We don’t really care what the roles are, we just want to put the team in the best position because we want that national championship.”