Home Sports College football: Former Northern Iowa defensive coordinator takes same position at Louisiana Tech

College football: Former Northern Iowa defensive coordinator takes same position at Louisiana Tech

by Russell Hedges

By Hunter Corneliseun, Louisiana Tech Associate Director Strategic Communications

RUSTON — Louisiana Tech head coach Sonny Cumbie announced the hiring of Jeremiah Johnson as the Bulldogs’ defensive coordinator on Friday.

“We’re excited to bring Jeremiah, Nicki, Lane, and Drew to Ruston,” Cumbie said. “I am thrilled for Jeremiah to be at Louisiana Tech as our defensive coordinator. Jeremiah is an experienced, successful play caller that will make an immediate impact on our team and defense. I’m looking forward to working with Jeremiah as he invests in our players and gets the best out of them on and off the field.”

An innovative and experienced defensive mind, Johnson arrives in Ruston from Northern Iowa, where he spent the 2023 season as defensive coordinator following a one-year stint at Kent State, where he served in the same capacity in 2022. Before Kent State, Johnson spent 15 seasons at Northern Iowa, including nine as defensive coordinator.

“My family and I are fired up about the opportunity to work with Coach Cumbie and the Louisiana Tech Football Family,” Johnson said. “It is an honor to be the Defensive Coordinator here and I am really excited about building relationships with the student athletes, staff and Ruston community.”

During his 16 seasons at UNI, Johnson coached 32 First Team All-Missouri Valley Football Conference (MVFC) defenders, five MVFC Defensive Players of the Year, one Buck Buchanan Award winner, 15 AP FCS All-Americans, and seven AFCA All-Americans. Johnson also coached several defenders who went on to play professionally, including current Miami Dolphins cornerback Elijah Campbell, Las Vegas Raiders defensive end Elerson Smith, and defensive lineman and 2022 CFL Grey Cup champion Jared Brinkman.

Northern Iowa won four conference championships during Johnson’s tenure in Cedar Falls (2007-2021, 2023). Additionally, the Panthers made 10 FCS Playoff appearances, while advancing past the first round in eight times.

During his 11 seasons as a defensive coordinator, Johnson’s defenses ranked in the top 10 of FCS statistical categories 29 times, including turnovers gained six times (2014, 2015, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2021), defensive touchdowns four times (2016, 2017, 2018, 2019), and scoring defense three times (2013, 2019, Spring 2021). Johnson and the Panthers accomplished this while playing in arguably the toughest league in the FCS. During his 10-year tenure as defensive coordinator the MVFC combined for 44 playoff appearances, seven national titles and two runner-up finishes while sending a participant to the FCS National Championship in nine out of 10 seasons.

Johnson’s defense specialized in stopping the run in 2023 as Northern Iowa ranked eighth among all FCS programs in rushing defense, allowing just 96.6 yards per game.

At Kent State, the Golden Flashes had one of the best red zone defenses in the Mid-American Conference in 2022. Defensive back Nico Bolden ranked ninth nationally in solo tackles per game with 5.7 per contest.

While at UNI in the fall of 2021, Johnson oversaw the nation’s fifth-ranked rushing defense, which allowed just 87.1 yards a contest. Northern Iowa continued its trademark of turning opponents over as its 26 turnovers gained ranked sixth in the FCS. Getting off the field was no issue for the UNI defense as the Panthers ranked ninth in third-down conversion percentage defense (.305) and fifth in fourth-down conversion percentage defense (.286). Johnson’s unit also ranked in the top 20 nationally in scoring defense (13th, 18.0), sacks per game (14th, 2.92), interceptions (18th, 14), and first downs allowed (18th, 190).

Despite, the COVID-19-shortened spring season in 2021, UNI still posted a strong unit defensively. The Panthers had the MVFC’s top red zone defense, ranking No. 8 nationally, while also posting a top-20 defense, giving up just under 285 total yards per game.

The 2019 season saw the Panthers boast one of the most impressive defenses in collegiate football. Johnson led the UNI defense to rank in the top 10 in turnovers gained (2nd, 34), interceptions (3rd, 19), fumbles recovered (4th, 15), defensive touchdowns (5th, 4), scoring defense (7th, 17.7), and total defense (9th, 297.7), helping propel UNI to the FCS quarterfinals with postseason wins over San Diego and conference rival South Dakota.

Johnson’s defense ranked in the top 20 of five statistical categories in 2018, highlighted by top-10 rankings in passes intercepted (6th, 18), defensive touchdowns (7th, 4), and turnovers gained (10th, 27). Northern Iowa boasted a 17th-ranked scoring defense and the nation’s 20th-ranked red zone defense (0.744).

UNI’s defense under Johnson recorded four defensive touchdowns in 2017, ranking seventh in the nation in a season that saw the Panthers reach the second round of the FCS playoffs. The Panthers also finished among the nation’s best in turnovers gained (5th, 31) and passes intercepted (4th, 21). Elijah Campbell, who would go on to play in the NFL, AAF, and XFL, led the MFVC in pass deflections and interceptions.

Johnson directed the defensive unit that led the league and was No. 9 in the country in total defense, allowing just 310.2 yards a game in 2016. He led a defense that saw a brand-new secondary finish No. 5 in the FCS in defensive touchdowns (4) and No. 12 in passes intercepted (17). The Panthers excelled at getting to opposing quarterbacks, finishing the year at No. 18 in sacks per game (2.64). The Panthers’ 183 first downs allowed were the 13th fewest nationally. He coached five athletes to earn MVFC All-Conference selections, including Karter Schult who earned MVFC Defensive Player of the Year as well as the Buck Buchanan Award, given to the best defensive player in FCS football.

During the 2015 season, the Panthers finished third in the FCS in turnovers gained (31) and ranked No. 13 in passes intercepted (17), No. 9 in red zone defense (.667), No. 18 in rushing defense (124.2) and No. 16 in scoring defense (19.6) on the way to being one of the most potent defenses in FCS football.

Forcing turnovers was the Panthers’ specialty in 2014 as their 31 turnovers gained led the Missouri Valley Conference and ranked fourth nationally. UNI intercepted 17 passes and recovered 14 fumbles, both ranked 12th in the FCS. Northern Iowa ranked 14th nationally in total defense (314.7) and 15th in scoring defense (19.9). Johnson’s defense gave opposing offensive lines fits throughout the season, ranking third among FCS programs in sacks per game (3.64) and 10th in tackles-for-loss per game (8.5).

The Panthers defense was impressive during Johnson’s debut season as defensive coordinator. Led by a young defensive core, the Panthers boasted the nation’s eighth-ranked scoring defense, allowing just 18.8 points per contest. UNI also ranked in the top 30 in total defense (19th, 334.5), sacks per game (19th, 2.58), team passing efficiency defense (24th, 114.84), rushing defense (29th, 131.6), and fumbles recovered (28th, 11).

Before being promoted to defensive coordinator, Johnson served as the defensive backs coach during the 2012 season. From 2007-2011, he served various roles in Cedar Falls, including video coordinator and defensive backs coach.

Johnson, a native of Lawrence, Kansas, spent the 2003-2005 seasons at Loras College on the Duhawk coaching staff, where he served under current Kansas State head coach Chris Klieman in 2005. Johnson assisted with the defensive backs in 2006 after helping with the wide receivers in 2005. Johnson’s first two years at Loras College were spent coaching the defensive backs.

Prior to his work at Loras, Johnson was a graduate assistant/video coordinator at the University of Wyoming in 2002.

A 2000 graduate of the University of Kansas with a degree in sports science, Johnson completed his master’s degree in athletic administration at Loras in 2005.  

Johnson is married to his wife Nicki and has a son, Lane, and a daughter, Drew.

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