Greg Schiano watched countless hours of videotape in February, March and April, the first three months after he was named head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He was preparing himself for his first draft with the team, and he was determined to be prepared, breaking down dozens and dozens of prospects.
Schiano didn't need an intensive study on Iowa State cornerback Leonard Johnson, however. He had taken care of that weeks before the Buccaneers even came calling.
After 11 seasons at the helm of the Rutgers' football program, Schiano's last game with the Scarlet Knights (though he didn't know it at the time) was the 2011 Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium, against Iowa State. One of the Scarlet Knights' greatest weapons was wide receiver Mohamed Sanu, an eventual third-round pick of the Cincinnati Bengals who racked up a Big East single-season-record 115 catches in 2011. Schiano had to believe that the Cyclones would assign their best cornerback to the job of stopping Sanu, and that happened to be Leonard Johnson.
"I knew the game plan, because they also had a top receiver over at Rutgers and I was assuming that they were going to be aware of the matchup, Sanu versus me," said Johnson. "I know for a fact that coach looked at the previous games to see what I was going to bring to them."
Schiano's Knights won the Pinstripe Bowl, 27-13, but Johnson did manage to hold Sanu in check for most of the afternoon, allowing just 62 yards on six catches from Rutgers' top pass-catcher. It was another fine performance in a noteworthy career that most analysts believed would lead to Johnson's name being called on the second or third day of the 2012 NFL Draft. Johnson himself expected to be anywhere from a second to a fourth-rounder. Scouts complimented his feel for the game, his ability to make plays on the ball (he had six interceptions and 26 passes defensed at Iowa State) and his fierce tackling.
As it turned out, however, the former Cyclone slipped through all seven rounds and thus became one of the most coveted prizes in the furious post-draft telephone sweepstakes. The Buccaneers were able to land Johnson as an undrafted free agent, and in a way that wasn't too surprising. Tampa Bay's sales pitch was surely quite good – undrafted free agents have a good history of getting a shot at One Buc Place, and there was definitely pre-draft need at the cornerback position – but the Bucs had another advantage in the competition for Johnson's services. You see, they just happen to be his home-town team, and he was thrilled when he got their call.
"I was excited," said the Clearwater native who played his prep ball at Largo High School. "It startled me at first. Just to know I grew up watching the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and I'm actually a Buccaneer now. It was a bit overwhelming, but after talking to my mom and talking to my agent, I was all aboard and ready.
"So I was expecting something to come through on draft day, but God works in mysterious ways, and I'm more than happy to be right here at home. It's a great situation for me. I'm excited to come to work every day and compete. I'm going to bring a competitive edge and just be myself. It just gives me an opportunity to be in touch with my community, because I do a lot in the community. My mother won't have to take off days and fly out to see my play. I'm right here with the home-town team."
There is quite a bit of room for competition in the Buccaneers' secondary. Long-time starter Ronde Barber may be moving to safety, opening up a spot. Reserve Elbert Mack, who has frequently played in the dime and nickel packages over the last four years, is a free agent who has not been re-signed. The Bucs did sign former Lion Eric Wright in free agency and draft West Virginia's Keith Tandy in the sixth round, but Johnson should have very opportunity to battle with those two and such returning players as Aqib Talib, E.J. Biggers and Myron Lewis.
Johnson won't be shy about joining that competition. He says he's over his draft-weekend "snub" and isn't playing with a chip on his shoulder, but he is also confident in his abilities.
"It is an opportunity," he said firmly, but with a smile on his face. "And I'm here. I want them to know that I'm here. Film doesn't lie. My film speaks volumes. I'm here, I'm a Buc and I'm ready to compete. I know the guys that they have here are well-respected. I know the guys they got in the draft definitely are great players, but I'm a great player also. I am a top guy."
Shortly after Johnson signed with the Buccaneers, his mother was digging through a box of old photographs and found one that, eight years after it was taken, looks suddenly prescient. In it, Johnson is posing with Schiano, having just finished the coach's football camp at Jefferson High School in Tampa, just a few miles from Raymond James Stadium. Johnson was a high school freshman and a quarterback at the time, but he was just beginning to develop his game.
Now a defender and a real NFL prospect, Johnson is reunited with Schiano, and his home-town team, and he's prepared to make this relationship last.
"I just want to be me," he said. "I'm a guy who's very aggressive, plays on the edge. I like to keep everyone excited. I'm just going to bring all the things I do well to the Bucs. I wouldn't be myself if I didn't. Hopefully that's good enough to put me where I need to be and where I want to be."