ISU DL Jamahl Johnson: “Little things” pave way for “elite” development

Oct 14, 2017; Ames, IA, USA; Iowa State Cyclones defensive lineman Jamahl Johnson (92) is held by Kansas Jayhawks offensive lineman Hunter Saulsbury (66) during the third quarter at Jack Trice Stadium. Iowa State beat Kansas 45 to 0. Mandatory Credit: Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

AMES — Iowa State defensive tackle Ray Lima has rightly been singled out as a culture changer for the program. He is so good it appears likely he’ll play on Sundays, but if you’re clamoring for him to tout himself, prepare to be disappointed.

 If there’s anything — anyone — he’s most proud of, it’s good friend and fellow D-line stalwart Jamahl Johnson.

 “Just proud of that guy,” said Lima, the quiet, but burly leader of a defensive front that could be one of the nation’s best in 2019. “Really proud of him. I was a bit older than him when I first got here, but we were kind of going through the ropes the same way, just being new; him being here, him being a freshman. But just proud of him, man. He just has a great personality. He loves his teammates. He loves our guys. Just happy to see him rewarded on the field and all that stuff.”

 Johnson and Lima won’t put up big stats. Interior defensive linemen rarely do. The impact they have on games is often unnoticeable to the casual observer, but that doesn’t diminish its vital offense-clogging importance.

 “Ray, just being the starter on there, just overshadows how critical Jamahl Johnson has been to the success of our football program,” said Cyclones coach Matt Campbell, whose team kicks off a highly-anticipated 2019 season Aug. 31 against Northern Iowa at Jack Trice Stadium. “And it’s really probably unfair in a lot of ways.”

 Lima, as Campbell noted, is the celebrated starter at nose when ISU’s in its usual three-man front. Johnson ably spells him — and takes on a broader role when the Cyclones choose to go with a more traditional four-man front, which could happen more frequently this season given the team’s relative strength and skill in the defensive trenches.

“We’ve got a lot of dudes this year,” Johnson said. “I’m really excited. We’ve definitely got all the dudes in our room right now to take us wherever we need to go this year.”

 Sprinkle in soon-to-be all-time sacks leader JaQuan Bailey and Enyi Uwazurike on the outside and its an explosive group that can dominate games — as demonstrated last season.

 “If you go back and really study us a year ago, there were times when we got into a four-man front,” Campbell said. “I think that’s where we feel comfortable. That’s still comfort because that’s been our foundation. … I think as we continue to evolve and grow, it’s great to have that tool in your pocket to be multiple when you need that multiplicity. I think we’ll know a little bit more about ourselves after fall camp of, what are our strengths? How much of that is real and how much of that is not real? So, yeah, certainly a tool for us that we can always go to and it’s helped us even over the last year and a half.”

 Johnson’s athleticism and versatility began showing up on the field late in 2017. The proverbial light came on during practices in advance of the Liberty Bowl and it has shone brightly ever since.

“Jamahl took that Liberty Bowl game and in some critical moments again last year, Jamahl Johnson is a guy that had the opportunity to stand up and play and I think what’s really unique is that entire defensive line room, now it’s not about who gets the credit,” Campbell said. “It’s about preparing and challenging themselves and each other to be prepared for the moment and Jamahl’s done that. You go back to Jamahl’s situation — a great example we all know is the West Virginia game (last season). Ray can’t play in the game, Jamahl steps in and is outstanding. Isaiah Lee gets a little bit of playing time in that game and is outstanding. So I think that’s where we hope we’re getting our program. You’re gonna have great players. Great players are gonna lead, but the great players are teaching the young players what it’s like to work hard, be prepared for the moment and understand what they’re accountability is. I think that’s what’s happened with Ray and Jamahl and it’s been really fun to watch.”

 Johnson, a 6-0, 300-pound senior from the Twin Cities, said he’s mostly doing fine-tuning as a prepares for his final season in cardinal and gold.

 The strength, savvy and instincts are already well developed. It’s the “little things” that will make the big difference in this “prove it” season for him and the Cyclones.

 “Just do the little things that weren’t either as good last year and just things that I need to clean up,” said Johnson, who totaled a pair of quarterback sacks last season. “Just very little things, because for the most part I feel like I’m in a good spot. But just making those little changes to go from a really good player to an elite player.”

 Johnson added that taking the next step hinges on mastering his “mindset.”

 “The mind controls the body, obviously,” he said. “The better you feel, the better you know your stuff and you think you can do things, the more results will come. … Mostly just being consistent and trying to not mess up as much. Just come in today with the same energy every day and just being consistent overall with everything that I do.”

 Lima takes the same approach — a proven path to success. Both he and Johnson study film together, toil together in the trenches and binge watch TV series during fall camp.

 What’s on tap on the tube for their final go-around?

 Stay tuned.

 “We’re definitely going to find something this year,” Johnson said. “I’ll definitely keep you in the loop.”

 Regardless, he and Lima have already bonded over every aspect of this football life — and it shows on the field and off of it.

 “We talk about everything,” Johnson said. “Just like what we’re gonna do after football. Different opportunities, internships and stuff like that. And we always talk about anime and stuff — and football, it’s our senior year. … Just come in with a mindset that we’re not sneaking up on anybody this year. Just to prove it as in do what you need to do, when you need to do it.”

 Simple statement. Powerful words, echoed by his friend. 

 “The only expectations we’re looking forward to are our own,” Lima said. “Everything that’s in the room is kind of what matters to us.”


Rob Gray


Rob, an Ames native, joined Cyclone Fanatic in August, 2014 after nearly a decade and a half of working at Iowa's two largest newspapers. He spent 10 years at the Des Moines Register and, after a brief stint in public relations, joined the Cedar Rapids Gazette as an Iowa State correspondent three years ago. Rob specializes in feature stories for CF.