1) Jovon Johnson (2002-05)
Johnson finished his career one off Iowa’s interception record. He’s got 17. Devon Mitchell and this guy Nile Kinnick are tied at the top with 18.
Johnson was a gamer. Iowa beat Kent State in recruiting and it was on up from there. He played as a true frosh, played a year with the Pittsburgh Steelers and is now a starting corner for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the CFL.
Here’s a story that ran before the 2005 season:
IOWA CITY – This is one of those “looking at the star, discovering the other guy” stories.
These stories always work out for the “other guy.” You don’t see these stories if the “other guy” fades into oblivion or has just a nice career. You see them when the “other guy” goes nuts, makes a name for himself and becomes a real player with records and everything.
The “other guy” is Iowa’s Jovon Johnson. The “star guy” is Wisconsin’s Levonne Rowan.
Four years ago, Iowa wanted Rowan. Iowa coaches flew to Erie, Pa., and Mercyhurst Prep and saw everything they needed to see. They visited, scouted and offered Rowan ascholarship.
When Levonne went to Wisconsin, Iowa went to Jovon.
“When (Iowa coaches) first came to talk about Levonne, I told them that Jovon might be the guy they want,” then-Mercyhurst coach Jeff Nichols said. “Levonne had size. He was the star track runner and had all the physical aspects, but Jovon was actually the better of the two athletes.”
What Division I-A football coach didn’t want Rowan, a 6-foot-1 blend of speed and athleticism? The Mercyhurst Prep all-stater had can’t-miss cornerback on the back of his jersey. He was Mercyhurst’s most valuable defensive player his junior and senior years. He had a 100-meter dash time of 10.5 seconds and 21 career interceptions.
Johnson and Rowan grew up with each other in Erie. They’re like brothers, Johnson said, with one calling the other nearly every day on the cell phone.
Iowa wanted Levonne, but Nichols pushed for Iowa coaches to take a look at Jovon, a shortish (5-foot-8), smallish (177 or so pounds), do-it-all player for Nichols at Mercyhurst.
“We were recruiting another kid from that school,” defensive backs coach Phil Parker said. “We went and looked at that kid and got to see Jovon play a little
basketball. We took a look at him and the kid made plays.”
Johnson’s resume was as impressive as Rowan’s. He ran the show for Mercyhurst’s offense as the wing-T quarterback. He rushed for nearly 2,500 yards, threw for 1,700 and accounted for 51 touchdowns in his career. At free safety, he picked off 10 passes. He returned 12 punts for TDs.
“If you watched him on film, he was a standout,” Nichols said. “You couldn’t miss him. Anytime there was something going on, he was a part of it.”
The shortish, smallish part of the package doused Iowa’s enthusiasm.
The late renowned Pennsylvania football coach Joe Moore gave Johnson the thumbs up. Moore, who helped coach at Erie Cathedral Prep and knew all about Johnson, was Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz’s high school football coach and mentor. That might’ve opened the door.
“Coach Moore kept asking me on the phone, `What about Jovon?’-” Ferentz said when Johnson burst on the scene in 2003. “I said, `Yeah, we like him. We don’t love him, but we like him.’
“Every time I talked to him, he brought that up. I’m a slow learner. After awhile, I figured it out.”
The day Iowa coaches visited Rowan at Mercyhurst, Johnson got a note out of class, followed Rowan and handed a bundle of highlight tapes to Iowa coaches.
“Levonne wasn’t ready to make a decision,” Johnson said. “I said, `Look at me, I’ll go to Iowa.’ ”
The tapes got Iowa’s attention.
“We looked at the tapes again,” Ferentz said. “The other guy was a faster guy and a bigger guy, but really not nearly as productive.
“If you looked at three tapes, those three tapes, it was like 90 percent to 10 percent in terms of production. The team won because of Jovon.”
The tapes helped. The fact that Rowan picked Wisconsin over Iowa didn’t hurt Johnson’s chances, either.
“That didn’t bother me,” Johnson said. “I felt like I was the next guy they were looking at. I knew that it’d work out.”
The Hawkeyes lost out on Rowan early in February 2002, days before national signing day.
They needed a defensive back. Time was up.
Johnson had an offer from Kent State on the table. But he wanted Iowa. He played against former Iowa star Bob Sanders. He saw what Sanders was doing at Iowa and wanted to be a part of it.
“They wanted a true corner and we said that’s Jovon,” Nichols said. “I know you look at the size and shy away, but with Jovon you get a lot more than 5-foot-8.”
The numbers say Iowa got it right.
Rowan has had a fair career for the Badgers. He’s started nine games. He earned academic all-Big Ten honors in 2003. He’s still looking for his first career interception.
“We never really talk about who’s done what,” Johnson said. “When we play against Wisconsin, we talk about it. But every other game, I’m pushing for him just
like he’s pushing for me.
“We’re like brothers. I’m there for him, he’s there for me. But not when we play each other; we go our separate ways there.”
Johnson, a fearless tackler despite his size, has parlayed a natural knack for the ball with astute film study and attention to down and distance into 14 career interceptions, just four off the school record shared by Iowa all-timer Devon Mitchell and the Iowa all-timer of all-timers Nile Kinnick.
“You can’t call the interceptions luck because he knows what he’s doing,” senior cornerback Antwan Allen said. “He’s in the right place at the right time. It’s not luck. It’s him doing his job.”
Johnson will spend his senior season chasing Kinnick’s record in Kinnick Stadium.
“I doubt if they’d name anything after me around here,” Johnson joked. “But I feel like I’d truly be remembered.”
2) Charles Godfrey (2004-07)
Godfrey is a starting his second year with the Carolina Panthers. He was the first rookie in team history to start all 16 games at safety, which is a switch from his days at Iowa. He was an all-Big Ten cornerback with 193 tackles, seven interceptions and 14 break-ups. In his rookie year, he had 61 tackles, a sack and an interception.
Here’s a story from 2006 that touches on Godfrey’s versatility:
IOWA CITY – Last spring, Iowa defensive coordinator Norm Parker described junior defensive back Charles Godfrey as a “jack of all trades, master of none.”
It fit, Godfrey said, so no offense taken. He jumped around practices, switching from free safety to cornerback.
But most people don’t want to be the “jack” in “jack of all trades, master of none.”
The “jack” is, most likely, a fill-in. Someone who’s good enough to be in the game, but still hasn’t won his own spot in the world. The “jack” also has a lot more on his plate, deflecting his sole focus off that one thing.
Of course, it’s good to be the “master.”
Godfrey is working on it.
After two years of switching positions, the 6-foot-1, 208-pound junior can beam his sole focus on cornerback. He’s done running four plays at safety and then four plays at corner every practice. He’s listed as a solid No. 1 on the Hawkeyes’ depth chart.
“I guess if you go to a carpenter and the carpenter is good and you ask him to lay brick, it’s going to be a little bit different,” defensive backs coach Phil Parker
said. “It was probably unfair of us to do that to him. But we settled down a little bit, put him in one spot, and now I think he can be a little more detailed in what he does and be more like a finish carpenter.”
As far as raw materials go, Godfrey is primed for corner.
He’s the fastest returning Hawkeye, with a 4.45-second 40-yard dash to his credit. He’s a legit 6-1 and an even more legit 208. He has bloodlines. His brother, Ell Roberson, led Kansas State into national title contention in 2002.
He’s also put in his time. Last season, he was named Iowa’s special teams player of the year.
He’s everything a coach would want in a prototypical corner. But after filling in at free and strong safety for a pair of starts last season and backing up cornerbacks Jovon Johnson and Antwan Allen, who started 85 games between them, he lacks experience.
Cornerback is a position where a mistake can turn into an ESPN highlight. It’s one of the real questions the Hawkeyes have.
“We put a lot of stuff on his plate, probably more than you should ask a young kid to do,” Norm Parker said. “I think he’s going to be a better player when we get down to where we learn how to be a corner.”
When Godfrey arrived from Baytown, Texas, he was a cornerback. He switched when the depth chart thinned out at safety, yielding a shot at playing time. He also kept a hand in at corner just in case.
Cornerback is where he wants to be.
“They’re (corners) hard to find, and it’s a hard position to play,” said Godfrey, whose two fumble recoveries tied for fifth in the Big Ten last season. “It takes
a special guy to play that position. I think I can live up to being one of those guys who makes it to the next level.”
Godfrey is working on his “masters.”
“You have to take each day and learn more and learn more, so you can master your position,” he said. “I’m not looking at me as having an advantage because
I’m 210 and run a 4.45. I’m out there trying to learn every day.”
3) Amari Spievey (2008-09)
Here’s a story on Spievey’s return from academic limbo at Iowa Central Community College in Fort Dodge. Spievey had four picks in his first season as a starter last year.
Iowa defensive coordinator Norm Parker believes Spievey might be the best corner Iowa has had in his 11 seasons as DC.
Honorable mention: Bradley Fletcher (2005-08). In his one full season as a starter, Fletcher made 60 tackles, had three interceptions and broke up 10 passes. He had to wait until he was a fifth-year senior, but Fletcher parlayed a great 2008 into a third-round draft pick of the St. Louis Rams last April.