Holding his baby daughters under each arm, Lonnie Johnson Jr. reflected on why he endures grueling practices in the Texas heat, lengthy film sessions in darkened rooms and rigorous weightlifting sessions.
It’s all because of his family, especially his daughters, Ayla and Alani. Married to his wife, Selena, shortly before training camp in Miami, Fla., in a ceremony attended by several teammates, Johnson wants to give their daughters a life he dreamed of while growing up in a gritty industrial town afflicted by crime and poverty.
“They love Daddy, so they’re the reason I go hard every day,” Johnson said. “I've got to provide for them. Seeing them happy, that's what makes me happy the most. Going out there, practice hard, got no excuses, no complaints. I don't want to give them none. At the end of the day, I just got to go out there and do my job so they can live the best life they can.”
Growing up in a tough environment in crime-ridden Gary, Ind., Johnson saw friends get murdered and incarcerated. He beat the odds, overcoming academic problems to earn degrees from Kentucky and Garden City Community College to emerge as a second-round draft pick.
It means too much to Johnson, 25, for him to fail.
“Definitely I've been through a lot, coming from Gary, Indiana and going through my whole juco process, a lot of people don't know that,” Johnson said. “So can't take this for granted. The NFL is not for long for anybody, but I'm trying to make it a long process for me and for these two.”
Now, Johnson is determined to continue growing as a player.
Since converting from cornerback last season, Johnson looks more comfortable at his new position.
At 6-foot-2, 213 pounds with 4.38 speed in the 40-yard dash, Johnson is the Texans’ biggest defensive back and one of the fastest on the roster.
Since former Texans general manager Brian Gaine drafted Johnson, he’s battled consistency issues while flashing plenty of potential.
Signed to a four-year, $5.214 million contract that includes $3.039 million guaranteed with a $1.812 million signing bonus, Johnson is competing with returning starter Eric Murray and special-teams standout A.J. Moore for playing time at safety next to Justin Reid. He intercepted quarterback Jeff Driskel during a Saturday night scrimmage.
“Adjusting to safety last year was kind of tough because I pretty much didn't know nothing about it,” Johnson said. “But this year, like mentally, I'm ready for it. Mentally, I've been improving and that aspect of my game, and just the physical part, that's always going to be there. You can work on your technique, work on your angles, and get in certain spots, knowing route concepts and all types of stuff like that. I'm just ready to take the next step at the safety position.”
Johnson played in every game last season with five starts and had a career-high 76 tackles, one for a loss, with three quarterback pressures. As a rookie, Johnson played in 14 games with seven starts and recorded 41 tackles with seven passes defended and no interceptions.
Johnson is liking his fit in new defensive coordinator Lovie Smith’s 4-3 defense. He’s thinking fast and playing faster.
“I like it, it's working for me,” Johnson said. It's just more like spot on, more for instinctive players. Just go out there and just make the plays, man. It’s on you. I was supposed to have one today. It’s just on you to go out there and make the plays and play fast.”
Safety, because of his physical style, appears to be the best fit for Johnson.
During a win over the New England Patriots last season, Johnson had two quarterback hits on Cam Newton. That included one clutch pressure with Reid that forced Newton to throw incomplete on fourth down late in the fourth quarter to clinch a 27-20 victory.
“In the NFL, it’s hard because they don’t let you touch receivers much anymore because of the rules,” said Jeff Sims, Johnson’s junior college coach at Garden City. “Lonnie was taught by us to be a physical corner. He could maul you at the line of scrimmage. He’s long. He would beat you up. He would disrupt the timing. Safety is a great position for Lonnie.”
Playing for safeties coach Greg Jackson has given Johnson a different perspective on how to play the game. Jackson played safety in the NFL for a dozen seasons, earning a Super Bowl ring with the New York Giants and intercepted 32 career passes.
“Well, the first thing I saw was the length, how tall, how long he was,” Jackson said. “I think he’s done a tremendous job at moving to the safety position and start to understand how to take the proper angles as a safety. It’s a little bit different playing the corner position because you’re just playing everything from outside in. With him, it’s more of the just repetition for him and being consistent at what he does. He’s a really good player.”
The trust that Johnson and Jackson are building could generate dividends for a Texans defense in flux.
“He’s been coaching for a long time, so him coming with that experience and helping a young safety like myself, it’s meant a lot,” Johnson said. “He's been helping me with my angles, telling me where I need to be and helping me break down the film, something I've never really had before. He's a big help.”
Johnson switched his jersey number from No. 32 to No. 1. Johnson hopes it’s symbolic and is embracing the pressure that goes with wearing that number in a revamped defense. The Texans had just two interceptions last season by defensive backs.
“Definitely, man, this whole defense, our job is to fly around the ball and get the ball,” Johnson said. “That's what we going to do, man. We going to get takeaways for our offense, get the ball to whoever is back there as much as possible.”
Aaron Wilson has covered the NFL for 20 years and has previously written for The Houston Chronicle and The Baltimore Sun. He’s on Twitter: @AaronWilson_NFL and Instagram: @aaronwilson7128