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Saturday Spotlight: Caleb Johnson

Throughout the 2021 NFL season, we’ll spotlight a Bears player in a weekly column. This week, we’ll take an in-depth look at Linebacker Caleb Johnson.

NFL: Buffalo Bills at Chicago Bears Jon Durr-USA TODAY Sports

Name: Caleb Johnson

Position: Linebacker

Number: 92

Age: 23

Time with Bears: Rookie

The Past:

“When I’m out on the field, I just play ball as only I know how.”

Caleb Johnson is the kind of young leader the Bears have been searching for.

Johnson wasn’t nationally ranked coming out of high school in 2016. Popular recruiting websites 247 Sports and ESPN don’t even have a recruiting profile on him, and only MaxPreps listed him, as a defensive back and the #146 player out of California. He had 0 major offers and his college football career would have to start from the ground up.

His high school yearbook quote? “You can catch me on ESPN in a few years.”

The summer after graduation, Johnson received a phone call from then-defensive coordinator of Houston Baptist University, Charlie Camp, and committed during that conversation. Houston Baptist is a private school which reported an undergraduate enrollment of just 2,733 students in fall 2020. Their first season of college football? 2013. NCAA sub-division? FCS. Overall win-loss? 19-59.

It’s safe to say the HBU Huskies needed a leader.

In fall 2016, then-freshman Caleb Johnson played in all 11 games as a freshman. He recorded modest stats, with 11 total tackles and two half-sacks to make 1.0 on the year. He made the conference academic honor roll, and entered his sophomore year ready to compete for more playing time for HBU’s defense, who’s head coach Vic Shealy was himself a former defensive coordinator.

Unfortunately, an injury derailed Johnson’s 2017 season, and he took a medical redshirt. He was named to the conference academic honor roll again, and before the injury he recorded his first start of his career for the HBU Huskies. That year, Houston Baptist was led by senior linebacker Garrett Dolan, who was a finalist for the Buck Buchanan Award, given to the FCS defensive player of the year. Dolan passed away the next summer, before he had a chance at professional football, and the Huskies later named an award after him.

In 2018, Caleb Johnson earned a starting role with the Huskies, and his career really lifted off the ground. He started all 11 games that year. Some highlights from that year include a fumble returned for a touchdown against Southeastern Louisiana, a safety against Lamar, and an interception in his own endzone against Northwestern State. He finished that season with 102 total tackles, including 13 for a loss. He was once against named to the conference academic honor roll.

In 2019, Johnson made his case for the NFL with an outstanding 10.4 tackles per game through 10 starts. He also recorded 6 sacks and an interception, showing his diversity in both pass rush and coverage. Against Lamar, he recorded a career-high 14 total tackles. Johnson was leading the Huskies on defense and impressing NFL scouts. For his leadership that year, Johnson was voted by his teammates for the Garrett Dolan Leadership Award, named after his late teammate.

The Houston Baptist schedule was shortened to only non-conference games in 2020, but that didn’t stop the redshirt-senior Johnson from lighting up the stat sheet. In just 4 games, he recorded 49 tackles, a 12.2 per game average which ranked him fourth in the entire NCAA. For a second time, he was voted by his teammates for the Garrett Dolan Leadership Award, an honor he called his greatest achievement.

In 2021, Caleb Johnson began his journey as a professional football player.

The Present:

Caleb Johnson went undrafted in 2021, and immediately after the draft found a spot with the Chicago Bears. Johnson is the first player in Houston Baptist history to sign with an NFL team, although it’s speculated that former teammate Garrett Dolan may have been given a shot with a team.

Johnson had a good camp, and in the preseason was given a shot to battle for a roster spot. In the first preseason game against the Miami Dolphins, he recorded 5 total tackles, 2 TFLs, and a pass breakup. The next week against the Bills, he recorded 3 total tackles, including a monster of a play where he used an offensive player to tackle a running back. In the final preseason game against the Titans, Johnson recorded 9 total tackles.

Cut day came, and cut day went. Caleb Johnson is still on the Chicago Bears roster.

It’s been said that Johnson took Josh Woods’ spot on the roster, as both were former defensive backs who converted to linebacker and learned how to hit. Johnson flashed so much promise in the interior linebacker game, though, that the Bears have a legitimate spot for him while Danny Trevathan continues to sit on the injured reserve. In week 3 against the Cleveland Browns, Johnson recorded his first career NFL tackle, on special teams.

In college, Johnson actually played for two defensive coordinators with two different schemes, and played both inside and outside linebacker. The Bears have a versatile player who they can try to develop into a long-term solution at the inside.

The future:

When Caleb Johnson signed with the Bears this past offseason, it was for 3 years, with very little cap penalty should they waive him at any point. He’s a nice depth piece at a position the Bears were desperately lacking depth last year. He’s shown he can be a leader, and after the Bears have parted ways with multiple young players who were absolutely not leaders before this season, defensive coordinator Sean Desai has a young man who has worked his way up to this point and can continue to ascend.

This Sunday, Soldier Field plays host to a Lions team which is still looking for their first win of the 2021 season. The Lions’ most productive player thus far is running back D’Andre Swift, and the Bears will need to gameplan to stop his receiving ability out of the backfield. While Caleb Johnson hasn’t quite worked his way out of a special teams role thus far, he could be called upon in the future if he continues his great work.

Week 4 prediction:

1 tackle on special teams