With the Buccaneers facing the distinct possibility of traveling to Oakland without their two top cornerbacks, free agent Leonard Johnson most likely will be counted on to help fill the void. The Clearwater native played well in last Thursday's 36-17 win at Minnesota and is earning the trust of his coaches and teammates.
When the Buccaneers take the field in Oakland on Sunday with a chance to even their record to 4-4, they most likely will do so without the services of cornerback Eric Wright.
The free agent corner back is possibly facing a four-game suspension by the NFL for testing positive for Adderall, and even if the Jay Glazer report fails to be valid, Wright is also trying to recover from a mild Achilles injury suffered last Thursday night in Minnesota.
As former Buccaneers head coach Raheem Morris used to say often – next man up. And that “next man up” could be rookie free agent cornerback Leonard Johnson who saw extensive playing time in Thursday’s 36-17 win over the Vikings.
Monday, during the open locker room period at One Buc Place, Johnson was the man in the media spotlight, and talked about his opportunity on the national stage Thursday night.
I just went out and tried to have fun and do everything I was asked to do,” Johnson said. “The fact I was able to start in nickel and dime (coverages) was something I looked forward to doing all week. I didn’t want to put too much thought into it or pressure on myself about going out there with the first team. I just wanted to hang out and let all be natural.
“That’s the kind of approach I take when opportunities like that present itself. All week I was just telling myself – I do a lot of self-talking – that the bigger the stage, the bigger I perform. I told myself that all week knowing that if I just took care of things in practice I’d feel confident and then I’d be able to go out and perform. I always visualize having big games. I didn’t’ actually visualize that (the interception), but I just knew something big would happen.”
Head coach Greg Schiano talked about Johnson and his play last Thursday night.
“I think he competed,” Schiano said. “The stage doesn’t get a lot bigger in the season than on national television game against a team that is doing well offensively. It wasn’t too big for him. I guess that’s the best thing. He competed and made some plays. He had an interception. That other one … take a look at it. It is up for discussion too.
“So two really big time plays and then other ones that go unnoticed; the ones that he does his job. At cornerback position we have talked about many times you do your job the whole night and no one notices. It is only when you are involved in the ball. You the receiver and the ball is where you earn your keep. I thought he did well in those competitive situations.”
Gerald McCoy also noticed the play of his rookie teammate.
He came in and ended the game for us with an interception,” McCoy said on Monday. “He played well. That other play, it looked like an interception. But he stepped in and played well. We have a next man up mentality and that’s just how it has to be. You never know what can happen. On any given day, anything can happen, the next man has to be ready.”
Johnson, a Clearwater native, went undrafted in last April’s NFL draft after being rated highly on many mock draft boards early in his senior season. But a disappointing 40-time and a lack of ideal size (5-foot-10, 196) mostly likely hurt his stock.
At first Johnson was bitter and angry but told the media those thoughts have now passed.
“I don’t think about that anymore,” Johnson said. “The draft, all those hard feeling, I let all that stuff go once I made the team. After that I was like, I’m here. I don’t have to carry a chip on my shoulder anymore. Now it’s just time for me to go and have fun and get back to the basics.”
With Wright’s availability up in the air, Johnson knows he won’t have much time to relish in his success against the Vikings.
“I’m just taking it one day at a time,” Johnson said. “The whole Eric Wright situation will handle itself, the Achilles or whatever else it is that’s going on. Right now I’m just trying to focus on getting better and doing the things I can do to be prepared if anything was to happen. That way I’m not shocked when the time comes.”
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