On a day when temperatures squeezed sweat out of every human with a pulse, Derrell Johnson-Koulianos represented a cool, refreshing breeze in an Iowa media day overrun with poor questions and textbook answers.
I showed up planning on speaking to this internet legend, this phenomenon referred to so often as simply DJK. Every time I looked for an opening, he was blanketed by reporters. As usual, I was not the only one lured into the web of this hero to many recruiting followers.
When I finally did make it over to speak with Johnson-Koulianos, I quickly realized his attraction. It had little to do with ESPN Analyst Kirk Herbstreit building him up as the best player out of Ohio in the 2006 class. It had more to do with his incredibly engaging personality.
Johnson-Koulianos answered every question I heard in a mature way. He delivered well-time jokes when the situation called for it but also got serious when the interview turned in that direction.
All of this has nothing to do with him being able to produce on the field. But I feel a lot better knowing that he can handle the pressure that has been created by all of the attention he’s received, including those words by fellow Ohio resident Herbstreit.
“We like to call that hype,” Johnson-Koulianos said. “Most players don’t ask for hype. But I know one thing, when there is hype, it motivates you. It sets a spark under you. You’ve got to go. You’ve got to do it.
“Everybody wants to be the guy. Everybody wants to be the guy that’s counted on, the big-play guy, the star of the team. But right now I just want to put myself in the best possible position to succeed.
“If there’s going to be hype, which obviously there was hype, it’s my responsibility to live up to it. I’m OK with that because I’m on this football team for a reason. That’s to be productive. And if you’re not going to be productive, you’re not going to be on the field.”
Johnson-Koulianos broke the surface last season by displaying some of the talent that elicited the hype, much of which was created by some spectacular high school film. The 6-foot-1, 205-pound Ohio native led the Hawkeyes in receptions (38), receiving yards (482) and kickoff returns (22-521-23.7) as a raw redshirt freshman last season.
“Last year I was learning on the run,” he said. “I was learning that the game was fast. I was learning mentally in the play book. Now I feel like I’m playing a lot faster. I know a lot more. I’m a lot more comfortable.”
Highly-hyped players don’t always reach their expectation levels. And although he’s got a long way to go, Johnson-Koulianos seems to be keeping his internet legend status in proper perspective.
“I’ve heard that. My friends tell me. People in the community tell me,” said Johnson-Koulianos, who said he does not read message boards. “An internet legend? I don’t know if I’m excited about that. I’d rather be an on-the-field legend. But you’ve got to start somewhere, I guess.”
Johnson-Koulianos knows that he’s referred to as DJK on message boards. He says there are more nicknames from where that came. He can rattle them off quickly.
“DJK, Hell-Rell, Revenue-Rell, JK, E. John, D. John, D. John Koul, Koulio, Koulianos, I mean it doesn’t stop,” he said to a very entertained group of reporters. “It’s wild. It’s crazy. And it’s been that way since I was a little boy. For some reason, people feel like I need a nickname. My first name is just not enough.”
And again, this stuff doesn’t seem to be going to his head. He appears very well grounded and has fun with it.
“When I came here, I was so intrigued by how much the fans were just, like, so invested in the football team,” Johnson-Koulianos said. “You could see it in their eyes whenever you had a chance to interact with them. That motivates the hell out of me. When I see how much they put forth and how much they want to see Ws, that makes me work harder because they deserve wins. They deserve bowl games. They deserve to take trips to warmer parts of the country.”
Johnson-Koulianos seems to get it. He reminds me a lot of a pair of ex-Hawks in Luke Recker and Tim Dwight in that he’s a character but not someone I could see ending up on the police blotter.
Johnson-Koulianos saw his name in the paper during the off-season when he moved back into a room where an alleged sexual assault occurred. He may have unknowingly removed some evidence. Although it shook him initially, he quickly moved past it.
“It’s going to take more than that to get to me,” he said. “When you’re focused, those kinds of things can’t affect your mental state. Those things happen. I surely put it behind me. I put it behind me the day after it happened.
“My whole reasoning for going nine and a half hours from home was to be the best Hawkeye I can be. I’m definitely not going to get into trouble off of the field or do anything that’s going to reflect on our coaches and our community in a negative way.”
Being from outside Iowa possibly gives Johnson-Koulianos a different perspective on how the last year of negative news off of the field casts a shadow on the program for which he cares a lot.
“It comes down to every guy knows right from wrong,” he said. “If you’re 18, 19, 20, and don’t know right from wrong then you certainly shouldn’t be playing for this program. Every incident that’s happened, you make a decision. It’s either a good decision or a bad decision. Guys continue to take chances and reflect on our program in a negative way. It’s got to stop. Guys are coming to the realization that we’re being looked at in a very negative way throughout the country.”
Johnson-Koulianos has a kind of guardian angel in quarterback Jake Christensen.
“He’s always calling me and asking what I’m doing and where I’m at,” Johnson-Koulianos said. “When I see that he cares, I try to do the same thing for other players and it cycles around. The younger guys are going to do what the older guys are doing. If we don’t set a good example, how are they going to set a good example?”
For Johnson-Koulianos, if you’re paying enough attention to football, there really shouldn’t be time to be stupid off the field.
“You have to put the cell phones down,” he said. “You have to put the magazines down. I love tabloids. It’s got to be football around the clock for three weeks (of training camp). It’s nutrition, film, lifting, working out, performance at practice. It’s all got to be your main focus. And it’s all going to show on August 30 and every Saturday on from there.”
Despite the attention, you don’t get a feeling that Johnson-Koulianos is a me-first guy. He strives to do well to draw attention to the team and his unit.
“I do have goals. My goal is to be an all-Big Ten receiver,” he said. “My goal is to eliminate the mistakes, the mental errors and to be as productive as I can be. I want to be part of giving our receiving corps a name around the country. That’s my goal.”
This kid has got it. Now he just needs to keep catching it.