When asked about the outlook for rookie cornerback Jaylon Johnson on Wednesday, both defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano and secondary coach Deshea Townsend used the same term: baptism by fire.
The Bears defense has been able to absorb rookies as crucial contributors in recent years. Safety Eddie Jackson and linebacker Roquan Smith stepped into starting jobs in their first seasons. Neither, however, received the full benefit of the offseason. Jackson was still rehabbing a broken leg suffered during his senior season at Alabama, and Smith missed training camp due to a hold-out.
Johnson can relate, given the absence of rookie camp and preseason games this year. Still, the second-round pick believes his time is coming.
"I've always felt like I was ready, even in college," said Johnson. "I prepared my whole life, I prepared in college, just everything I was doing was just to be ready for this situation. So now coming into it and it being real, I feel like everything I have worked for, everything I've been doing all these years just came to pass, and now that I am here, I feel like I'm ready."
Johnson's laser focus on the NFL defined his college career. Johnson enrolled a semester early at Utah, then considered to be the highest-rated recruit in program history. Johnson earned immediate playing time in a secondary looking to replace two NFL-bound cornerbacks.
Johnson compared his current situation to the one he encountered three years ago in Salt Lake City.
"My freshman year, I knew right away coming into it," said Johnson, "I knew what the depth chart was looking like on my way into Utah. At the end of the day, it was just about learning my assignments and then just perfecting my technique, and that was something I did throughout my whole career."
Johnson's reputation as an eager student precedes him. In addition to his quick ascension as a football player, Johnson took a heavy course load to graduate in three years.
"He texts me about once a night," said Townsend. "He texted me last night about some things that he needs to work on, what should we do. So that part of the game is a plus for him. He's a student. He understands. He can take a concept from the meeting to the field."
Townsend said that the time was coming for Johnson to apply his mental understanding to game action. Johnson's path to the field has been limited by the pandemic-related changes to the offseason schedule as well as the coaching staff's desire to ease him into action, conscious of a shoulder injury suffered last fall.
For his part, Johnson said that his shoulder feels fine.
"I feel good now," said Johnson. "I couldn't tell you when I started feeling normal necessarily, it was just about attacking my physical therapy day by day and just trying to get better every day."
The action that Johnson has seen has not fazed him.
"The speed hasn't been too shocking for me," said Johnson. "It's been really easy to adjust to. It's just about learning the game, learning some tricks that come with coming to the next level and playing against professional athletes."
Pagano said that an essential aspect of Johnson's development would be his ability to put mistakes behind him, alluding to the adage that cornerbacks need short memories. Johnson said that giving up big plays is an occupational hazard of the position, but that his actions would show his resiliency.
"I can say, 'Oh, I am going to be tough, coach, I am going to be all right,'" said Johnson. "At the end of the day, it comes down to when I get in that moment, how am I going to show him? How am I going to respond?"
Johnson said that the culture around the team has been helpful for instruction, saying that he'd even received valuable correction from members of the receiving corps.
"They give me some tips," said Johnson, "saying 'hey, when certain things are going this way, you can expect certain things.' That's just very helpful getting that information, getting that feedback from them. So I mean, it's definitely a pleasure to have teammates that care and want you to get better."