Jason Johnson: Things I Know

by John Heisler

Don’t feel badly if you aren’t intimately familiar with the sound of Jason Johnson’s voice. He’s admittedly on the quiet side, though he’s respected enough to be one of six UCF football captains for 2023. He comes from Harvey, Illinois, in the south suburbs of Chicago—and his game is making tackles. He prefers to do that as opposed to talking about it. He’s in the mold of former President Theodore Roosevelt who used to say, “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” As well as the 6-2, 235-pound senior linebacker performs on the field (he had more than twice as many tackles as anyone else on the 2022 UCF roster and is a former Ohio Valley Conference leader in tackles), he’s equally accomplished in the classroom. His 3.64 undergraduate grade-point average (as a May 2023 graduate) made him an easy choice as UCF’s nominee for 2023 for the William Campbell Award that the National Football Foundation presents to college football’s top scholar-athlete. Here is his story in his own words:

I was born and raised on the south side of Chicago. My big brother DeQuon (Dudley) played receiver at a couple of Division II schools, McKendree, Texas A&M-Commerce and Carson-Newman. He played in the Indoor Football League (for Tucson Sugar Skulls) this past season. He’s four years older than me, so I grew up watching him. But he was the star--people knew who he was. He was better than I was. 

I played receiver all through high school. My head coach thought I could play linebacker, so I tried it, and it turned out I was good at it. But I didn’t play linebacker until my senior year of high school. I’ve always liked football and basketball. I played basketball, too, in high school. I played as a big man—I’d get a lot of rebounds. But I played inside.

I had seven D-II offers and one FCS offer from Eastern Illinois. I went to Eastern Illinois on a half-scholarship—that was the highest level I had a shot to play. I always believed in myself, so I knew I would be able to get it done and play there.

As a freshman at Eastern Illinois, I was hurt at the beginning of the year, and I was second string. But at the end of the year, I became a starter and started leading the team in tackles. I was comfortable from the beginning. We didn’t win a lot of games, but I always thought we had a good defense.

I had every intention of staying at Eastern Illinois. I had been all-conference three years in a row and an All-American. I was already involved in offseason workouts in the winter. Then my head coach (Adam Cushing) left to go to Duke as the offensive line coach. So, I put my name in the (transfer) portal and decided to look around.


It seemed like every FCS school wanted to talk to me. But UCF was the best opportunity I had. I really liked TWill (former defensive coordinator Travis Williams)—we hit it off. He made it clear they needed help at linebacker. I felt like wherever I went I expected to start—that was just my mindset. I knew I could compete. 

I played and started my first season (2022) at UCF, but I didn’t think about it as a big deal. I was used to playing and making a lot of tackles. That’s what I do.

Making tackles is about my instincts, my speed and practice—and my teammates doing their jobs so I can do my job. I’m not the biggest guy in the world but I’ve got decent speed.

I think opposing coaches would say my effort is crazy, that I’ve got good instincts and make a lot of tackles.

I always did well academically in school. It just seemed to come easy for me most of the time. My parents always told me how proud of me they were, and that kept me going. I just kept getting good grades every year. I remember things easily—that makes studying a little easier.


When I was younger Oregon used to be my favorite team. I liked De’Anthony Thomas and LaMichael James. My favorite players in the pros were Sean Taylor, Adrian Peterson, Ray Lewis. And I looked up to guys like LeBron (James), Kobe (Bryant), Derrick Rose—in addition to my parents and my brother.

I’ve always been quiet. I’m just chilling. I’ve always been laid-back. I don’t like talking about things. Coach (Gus Malzahn) encourages me to talk more, but I’d rather show what I can do.

Regardless of whether I was elected a captain or not, the challenge for me was to be more of a vocal leader. I’m still working on it. But I think a lot of the young guys look up to me. They ask me a lot of questions. I try to tell them certain things to help them get better.

I’m a long way from home, from the Midwest, but it’s no big deal. I just wanted to take my game to the next level against better competition. I knew when I came to UCF that the Big 12 was coming.

I think I’ll have a chance to play at the next level. Then, as far as life after football, I’ve thought about dabbling in real estate. I’ve been looking at the stock market and I’m going to keep doing that. I’m not sure, but I’ll figure it out.