DeKALB – “I used to pray for times like this, to rhyme like this. So I had to grind like that to shine like this.”
Jawuan Johnson knows every lyric to Meek Mill’s, “Dreams and Nightmares.” It’s one of his go-to tracks on game days. There’s even a video of him rapping the song on his Instagram mixed in with some of his highlight plays.
Johnson is able to relate to each word of the introduction. Coming out of New Boston High School (New Boston, Texas) in 2014, Johnson had only one Division I football scholarship offer.
The lone school that took a chance on the 6-foot, 220-pound linebacker? Northern Illinois.
Four years later, Johnson is coming off one of the best seasons from a linebacker in program history. During his junior year in 2017, he finished second on the team in tackles (98), led the Huskies with five interceptions – the most by a NIU linebacker since 1972 – and led the entire Football Bowl Subdivision with five forced fumbles.
NIU coach Rod Carey confirmed Tuesday that Johnson will not be returning for his senior season in 2018, saying he will graduate from the school in May and become a graduate transfer.
“I want NIU to know I appreciate everything,” Johnson said. “I'll forever keep in touch with Huskie nation. To the NIU fans, it's nothing but love and always will be love.
“It hurts me, but at the end of the day, it’s a decision for me.”
Johnson, 21, isn’t sugarcoating anything. His lifelong goal is to play in the NFL. His Twitter cover photo is a portrait of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell posing with a cut-out of a player at the NFL Draft. Johnson has the same photo as the background on his phone.
He isn’t changing either photo anytime soon. Johnson is determined to get to that stage, and he wants to maximize his final year of eligibility to help get him there.
Johnson is exploring graduate transfer options close to home near the Dallas area. He’s sent out his release to Baylor, Southern Methodist and Texas Christian.
“My mindset has always been the same – I feel like I’m the best linebacker in the nation,” he said. “I bring that swagger to my game. No matter the level, wherever I go, I’m going to bring the same (Jawuan Johnson). I force turnovers and I want the ball.”
Johnson was a top contributor for the Huskies in 2017, starting in all 13 games. One of his best moments of the season was during NIU’s marquee victory at Nebraska. He scored on a 25-yard interception return and made nine tackles to earn Mid-American Conference Defensive Player of the Week honors.
A native of East St. Louis, Johnson finished his junior campaign as the highest graded linebacker in the FBS, according to Pro Football Focus.
Despite a stellar year, Johnson was left with a bitter taste in his mouth heading into the offseason. He felt like his production was taken for granted on a few levels.
“I felt unappreciated (with the team),” he said. “I feel behind closed doors, I was under-appreciated in some parts.
“At the end of the day, I’m still grateful for everything. I told Coach Carey I’ll always appreciate them. I had one (FBS) offer coming out of high school, and I’ll never forget that. They gave me my opportunity to be great."
Johnson didn’t disclose exactly what frustrated him at NIU, but he did voice out his discontent towards the conference.
“The MAC did some political things, and I know (darn) well I was better than those guys ahead of me,” Johnson said. “It’s time for me to do what I do without the MAC. It’s a business decision.”
Johnson was snubbed during the postseason awards, only being named to the All-MAC Third Team. Four linebackers were named to each all-conference team – ahead of Johnson on the All- MAC Second Team were NIU’s Bobby Jones IV, Ohio’s Chad Moore, Western Michigan’s Rob Spillane and Central Michigan’s Malik Fountain. Johnson recorded better numbers in five statistical categories (solo tackles, tackles for loss, sacks, interceptions and touchdowns) than all three of the other linebackers – besides teammate Jones IV – named ahead of him on the All-MAC Second Team.
But Johnson isn't worried about that drama anymore. After weighing his decision with family and close friends, including former NIU and current NFL players Kenny Golladay and Tommylee Lewis, Johnson is fully concentrated on his future. Before he gets there, though, he wanted to credit those who helped him reach this point of his career.
"Coach Carey, Coach Knowles and the rest of the coaches ... I have a great relationship with all of them," Johnson said. "They’re my family away from home and taught me a lot. I have nothing but respect and love for them."
Johnson doesn't have a time frame of when he'll choose his next school. He’ll remain on campus through the end of the spring semester, finishing out his bachelor’s degree in communication and media studies.
He’s no longer listed on NIU’s roster and isn’t participating in spring practice. However, that hasn’t stopped his mindset or grind. Johnson trains at minimum twice a day and remains best friends with his former Huskie teammates.
“I’m hungry to play the best competition,” Johnson said. “I want knock out the sour taste in my mouth.”