Editor’s note: This is part two of a two-part series from a Times-News interview with Ty Johnson. Part one was published in Saturday’s edition of the Times-News.
CUMBERLAND — After spending four years in a crowded backfield at Maryland, it should come as no surprise to anyone that Ty Johnson is ready to battle for his spot on the New York Jets roster in a very similar situation.
When training camp opens tomorrow, Johnson will work to make up what will likely be a running-back-by-committee approach from first-year head coach Robert Saleh. Competing with Johnson for roster spots in the backfield are returners Josh Adams and La’Mical Perine, free agent signee Tevin Coleman, fourth-round pick Michael Carter, and Austin Walter, who was claimed off waivers by the Jets in May.
“All my time at Maryland I had a crowded running back room,” Johnson said on Thursday. “Even when I got to Detroit, it was a crowded running back room. This year, it’s a crowded running back room. But at the end of the day, I feel like I’ll still compete and I’ll flourish in my own ways that it’s possible to show. It’s just all about having fun and having the mentality of, ‘It is what it is, I can control what I can control.’ And if I can do that, then things are going to look up for me.”
After getting acclimated to the Division I game his freshman year, Johnson broke out with a 1,000-yard season as a sophomore, reaching 1,004 yards on the season in the Quick Lane Bowl at the place Johnson called home three years later in Ford Field.
He led the Terps again in rushing as a junior before being limited to nine games as a senior.
Notable former teammates in the Maryland backfield include Anthony McFarland, drafted in the fourth round in 2020 by the Steelers, and Jake Funk, who was selected by the Rams in the seventh round a few months ago.
Johnson finished his career at Maryland as one of four players in program history with 4,000 all-purpose yards — LaMont Jordan, Torrey Smith and Stefon Diggs are the other members of the club. Johnson is fourth in career rushing yards at Maryland and his sophomore 1,004-yard mark is 10th all-time for a single season with the Terps.
For Johnson, the transition from college to the pros hasn’t been as steep or daunting as others encounter.
“It’s really not all that different, you’re going against the best of the best,” Johnson said. “So, you know, from college, it’s the best of the best from whatever high school, and in the NFL, it’s the best of the best from every college. So, I mean, the level of game does, you know, it does go up, but it’s like, ‘I’m a grown man, this is all I have to do. It’s my job. It’s not like I’m a student in college. Like this is what I do for a living.’ ...
“And, you know, just the preparation is just, you know, through the roof. It’s phenomenal to see some of these guys and like, me having the opportunity to play with some of those guys like Matt Stafford, Adrian Peterson, Frank Gore, all these guys, Marvin Jones, I can just keep going on, Sam Darnold. We see how they prepare for these games. And that’s what I think the level changes all in all, because people are taking their time out to study every single opponent every single scheme, every single defensive coordinator, offensive coordinator. Whereas in college, if you got Alabama going against McNeese College or whatever, obviously, the the level of play is two different things. ... But I feel like it’s not too much of a difference. It’s just, you know, the mindset definitely changes.”
The college experience culminated in Johnson being selected in the sixth round of the NFL draft by the Lions in 2019, when he rushed for 273 yards on 63 attempts.
After two weeks of mostly special teams snaps — 12 each week — and five offensive snaps accounting for his only plays as a Lion in 2020, Johnson was listed as inactive for Detroit’s Week 3 win at Arizona before being placed on waivers.
“So the writing was on the wall, of course, for me, I think, for about the last two weeks before it happened,” Johnson said of his 2020 stint in Detroit. “They said it was the best camp I’ve ever had, you know, and I was looking great in practice. ... And they were like, ‘We have this planned for you. We got this like schemed up for you.’ But you know, obviously game time comes, it didn’t happen. I was like, ‘OK, well, something’s got to happen.’ Like we drafted two running backs. I beat out one. The other, the second round pick, is still here, D’Andre Swift, and then they bring in Adrian Peterson right before the first game. So I’m like, OK. They’re kind of telling me like, alright, kick rocks, you know?”
Instead of finding out via text message from a friend or family member, or Twitter, that he was being placed on waivers, Johnson found out the old-fashioned way.
He said he was talking with teammate Kenny Wiggins, who thought he was about to get cut as the Lions needed to free up a roster spot for Jayron Kearse.
“Me and Kenny Wiggins — he was a lineman there — me and him were going back and forth,” Johnson said. “He was like, ‘Man, today’s the day like I get cut.’ I was like, ‘No Kenny, trust me. It’s going to be me, like, the writing’s on the wall for me.’”
Johnson said he was in the shower when a front office employee, who he said they call the Grim Reaper due to part of the job duties, told him that then-head coach Matt Patricia and then-general manager Bob Quinn wanted to speak with him.
“I was like, ‘Man, you couldn’t let me get you some underwear on or something first,’” Johnson joked.
“I get showered up, finally put on some drawers, and went over down the hall,” said Johnson. “And they’re just sitting there and I was like, ‘Alright, let’s get this over with.’ And they are like, ‘Oh, you did nothing wrong. You had the best camp, you’ve been great in practice, you know, we just need a roster spot for JK.’”
Detroit — who released Wiggins a few weeks after Johnson was placed on waivers — wanted Johnson back after the next game, a Week 4 loss to the Saints, prior to the team’s bye week. But Johnson knew he was going to get claimed.
Johnson said then-defending champion Kansas City was interested and phoned his agent, stating they wanted him on the practice squad before being moved to the active roster the following week. Seattle more or less said the same. But it was the Jets who swooped in and claimed the former Fort Hill and Maryland star.
Johnson said he was at a bar with Jahlani Tavai the evening he was placed on waivers. “He took me out that night because obviously I didn’t have nothing to do the next day,” Johnson joked.
The next day, he received a call from Jets assistant GM Rex Hogan around 4 p.m., saying the team wanted him to fly out on Friday, but it wasn’t logistically possible to make it out of Detroit until Saturday.
Johnson said he has no ill will toward the Lions.
“It wasn’t any bad blood or anything like that. I still love Detroit because that was a team that took a chance on me and then also ... I finished a 1,000-yard season in that stadium when I was in college in the Quick Lane Bowl, so a lot of good memories there.”
Johnson was eased into things in New York. He was mostly given special teams reps through Week 9.
He usage ticked up slightly on offense in Week 11 against the Chargers, playing nearly a quarter of the team’s offensive snaps, before only being on the field for 10 plays against Miami in Week 12.
But then came the breakout game in Week 13 against the Raiders. After Gore went down with an injury, Johnson and Adams were called to action. Although it came in a 31-28 loss, moving the Jets to 0-12 on the year, Johnson eclipsed the 100-yard mark for the first time in his NFL career with 104 yards and scored his first touchdown on a 1-yard run in the fourth quarter to put the Jets ahead 28-24.
“It was great,” Johnson said of his breakout game. “Obviously it sucked, you know, Frank Gore went down for me to get that opportunity, but it’s always next man up mentality in the NFL. I was just like, ‘Alright, let’s roll.’ Me and Josh Adams, it was just me and him down there. We were subbing each other out. Coach Jim Bob (Cooter) gave us the go to sub each other out. Josh was like, ‘Man keep going.’ I was like, ‘Man you almost got 100 yards yourself. I get a few plays, you get a few plays.’ We just had fun with it.
“Then down in the red zone, Breshad Perriman, right when we got down to the red zone, he was like, ‘Congrats on you first touchdown.’ We ended up calling badger, which was inside zone to the right in Gun. So I’m on the left side and then you know did my footwork crossover step downhill. Someone crossed my face, I replaced them and then I just did a little dive into the endzone. It was great. I was like, ‘Man, I just did it.’ And you got Mekhi Becton and everyone just saying, ‘Yeah, let’s go Ty,’ this and that. It was great. But at the end of the day, it really didn’t mean anything to me because we lost. So it was great getting that opportunity and having that accolade, my first touchdown, but at the end of the day I’d rather have the win. I’d rather have 80 yards in a win than 100 yards and a touchdown (in a loss), you know?”
After a blowout loss to Seattle, Johnson and the Jets ended the season on a high, winning two of the final three games.
With Gore back in the fold against the Rams in Week 15, Johnson was instrumental in helping the Jets get their first win of the season.
He finished the game with three carries for 16 yards and six catches on six targets for 39 yards and a touchdown. He caught four passes for 8, 6, 5 and 18 yards, the last being for a touchdown, on the opening drive.
After getting two carries for 13 yards in the Jets’ second straight win in Week 16 win against the Browns, 23-16, Johnson started the last game of the season against New England. He ran 11 times for 45 yards and caught two passes for 23 yards.
“I mean the first win was love, you know, guys were just crazy,” Johnson said. “There was drinks on the plane and everything. It was a long plane ride from the West Coast, so we had the drinks out. The stewardesses, they were giving out drinks and I was like, ‘Man, y’all really acting like, you know, it’s the first win so like you want to act like it’s like the damn Super Bowl when you lose that many in a row.’ And also I believe the Rams were like, what, the number one defense too? It was wild. It was a great. We had a guy, I think he had like a mullet or whatever, and then like he brought clippers just in case we won; and then right when we got in the locker room, I think he cut his hair off or something and then he was all bald headed and it was funny. Not hazing or anything, he just did it because he wanted to. But yeah, it was great.
“But also ending the season 2-14, no one likes that, so guys were like, ‘We got to come back different next year. Of course get this work now. Take our time off, but we got to get through this and get right because we’re trying to win games, you know, and go from there really.’ There really wasn’t much to be said or how to feel, you know? You go 2-14, you can kind of see how people feel without even asking because no one wants to lose like that. But it was ... the mentality was, ‘Alright, we’re getting a new coach.’ Right when we got back from the Patriots, (former head coach Adam) Gase was bought out, of course, that was public knowledge. And then yeah, it was they were like, ‘Alright, we got to get right for this next coach coming in.’ Obviously, we got Coach (Robert) Saleh and guys have been trusting the process ever since.”