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OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Jarret Johnson has emerged as a versatile football player who no longer thrusts his hand into the dirt before every snap. Now, the former University of Alabama standout is exclusively an outside linebacker who modeled his transition from defensive end after Adalius Thomas’ successful conversion.
For Johnson, the major change in his fourth NFL season from a three-point stance to standing up has prompted a few good-natured jokes from the team’s defensive linemen about how he’s hit the big-time as a full-fledged linebacker who operates alongside Ray Lewis and Co.
“I’ve always been a hand-down-in-the-dirt guy, and I had never backed up and covered before, but I like it,” said Johnson, who began experimenting at linebacker last season. “It’s different, but it’s good. I’m standing up all the time now and I enjoy it.
“I’m getting a lot more comfortable and instinctive with every practice. The more you can do, the better, of course.”
A year ago, Johnson registered a career-high 61 tackles with 1 ½ sacks and one forced fumble as he started 12 games. He even lined up at safety a few times in emergency situations.
To prepare for his full-time linebacker role, Johnson changed his diet and conditioning in order to shed 15 pounds to get down to 265 pounds. He also lost six-percent of his body fat during the offseason.
Since the Ravens drafted him in the fourth round in 2003, Johnson has always been regarded as a blue-collar athlete who thrives on contact. That prevailing opinion hasn’t changed.
“You’ve got to love him,” Ravens coach Brian Billick said of Johnson, who returned a touchdown for an interception in 2004 against the Miami Dolphins. “He’s like a Kelly Gregg. He just does whatever you ask him to do. We’ve asked a lot of him, the adapting he’s doing really to more of an Adalius Thomas role.
“He can put his hand down in the dirt. He can be up. He can drop back. He’s a very, very valuable multi-purpose player. That versatility is going to be huge for us.”
Johnson has already demonstrated signs this preseason that linebacker will probably be his permanent home. He’s tied for second on the team with eight tackles, also recording one sack for a 14-yard loss and forcing a fumble.
“Double-J is the kind of player that’s always going to be physical, and he works harder than anybody on the team,” Gregg said. “Rain or shine, he’ll be there to hit it.”
The Ravens have a “Steeler” defensive package that emphasizes the hybrid outside linebacker/defensive ends that populate the roster. It became a major part of the base defense toward the end of last season because of injuries, although the team has yet to unveil it during the preseason. In this 3-5-3 defense, Johnson plays linebacker along with Thomas, Lewis, Bart Scott and Terrell Suggs.
Regardless of the scheme, it looks like Johnson will have a significant role as a key reserve capable of starting in a pinch. “I’m not worried about playing time,” Johnson said. “It’s just good to be comfortable with what you’re doing."
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times in Westminster, Maryland.