It wasn’t long ago that Leonard Johnson was a youngster growing up in Pinellas County watching one of his idols, Ronde Barber, star in the Tampa-2 defense for the Buccaneers. Barber was a starting corner, but when the team would take a linebacker off the field and bring in a third corner, Barber would shift inside into the nickel back role. It was a role that essentially helped define his dynamic style of play, one that allowed him to use his physicality in the box and his instincts and ball skills in coverage.
Johnson now has an opportunity to play that role, one that, while not traditionally considered a starting job, has evolved into one due to teams passing the ball more and more. The Bucs emphasize it heavily, lining up in it over 50-percent of their defensive plays, and the they treat it as its own unique position, aside from the other cornerbacks. It even has its own coach, Larry Marmie.
It certainly has its own set of challenges.
“Playing inside I would definitely say is a tad harder,” Johnson said after practice Saturday. “Receivers have a two-way option to go, inside or outside, so you definitely have got to be on your Ps and Qs…and with all that being said, you’ve got to read ‘run, pass’ and it’s just a bit more responsibility to play on the inside.”
He was primed and ready for the challenge.
“All offseason, I just came out and attacked it, as if I was going to be the starting nickel…I talked to Ronde a lot this offseason. Got some tips and some pointers, definitely looked at his film this offseason and just tried to mimic in each way. Lost some weight, cut my hair bald (laughs), just coming out man and having fun, ya know, definitely want to fit that role to play that nickel job.”