In the three months since he signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as an undrafted free agent, Leonard Johnson has been inspired by his own field of dreams.
The field is Raymond James Stadium, and the dream is looking into the stands in the regular-season opener and seeing his mother waving back in salute, adorned in Bucs colors.
"I can close my eyes and see my mom (Schenique) at the stadium Sept. 9, rooting me on,'' said the 22-year-old cornerback, a four-year starter at Iowa State after starring as a quarterback at Largo High. "I already see it. It's already in my vision and I'm walking toward it every day.''
A disappointing showing at the scouting combine, where he ran a pedestrian 4.6 seconds in the 40-yard dash, triggered Johnson's plunge on NFL draft boards.
But he's been quick to impress a new coaching staff at training camp with his work ethic and physical play.
"Leonard's a talented player,'' Bucs secondary coach Ron Cooper said, "and he's shown good coverage skills out here since we've been in pads. He'll put his hat on you and tackle. This kid likes to play football.''
A leg injury to E.J. Biggers has created an extended opportunity for Tampa Bay's young corners to shine.
"The biggest thing is to work hard every day and not take my foot off the gas,'' Johnson said. "That's how I play the game — aggressive. It's been like that since I was a junior pee-wee. To me, that's the only way to play the game, especially at my position.''
Before the combine, Johnson expected to be off the board within the first four rounds of the draft.
It didn't happen, but when the Bucs reached out, Johnson considered it a blessing.
"The draft is behind me,'' he said. "God works in mysterious ways. I grew up wanting to be a Buccaneer, and the opportunity presented itself to sign here as a free agent.''
It didn't hurt that Johnson was already nestled in the memory bank of new head coach Greg Schiano.
When Johnson was a freshman at Largo High in 2004, he attended one of Schiano's summer camps held at Jefferson High in Tampa. The last game Schiano coached at Rutgers was the Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium against Iowa State and a standout corner by the name of Leonard Johnson.
There's no guarantee Johnson will make Tampa Bay's final 53-man roster, but at least one teammate likes what he sees.
"He's definitely going to be a big part of us stopping the run,'' cornerback Aqib Talib said. "Johnson's real aggressive and I think he'll be around here. He's got good ball skills and he's out here working hard.''
Johnson thrives on big hits and is competing against other young corners such as Myron Lewis, Anthony Gaitor, Marquese Wheaton and Desmond Marrow.
"Leonard looks around and sees all the other guys fighting for spots,'' Cooper said. "He's a confident young man, and to play corner, it takes a guy with great confidence.''
An early highlight came this week when Johnson rubbed shoulder pads with a childhood hero.
"I grew up watching Ronde Barber. … I wanted to be just like him,'' Johnson said of Tampa Bay's 15-year veteran. "I was in the huddle with the ones a couple of days ago and I actually received a call from Ronde. It was kind of like living my dream out. Preparation, intelligence, maturity — the man has it all. I'm getting a chance here, and I think everyone so far has been impressed with what I'm bringing to the table.''
If Johnson gets a little down on himself in camp, he thinks of the opener against Carolina on Sept. 9, when prolific quarterback Cam Newton comes to town. Newton ravaged the Bucs defense twice in his rookie season, but Johnson relishes a chance to show he belongs.
"I keep seeing myself on the field that day,'' he said. "Not only would I have my mom in the stands, but I'm pretty sure I'll have the whole city of Clearwater there, too.''