(This column is a result of an interview I had with Derrell Johnson-Koulianos in late June. But there is a lot more to the DJK story, and that will be featured in the Gazette’s upcoming magazine about the 2010 Hawkeyes. Which is how an Ohio family took him into their home when he was 10 and raised him, helping him go from little chance of a successful life to a safe, happy home and the potential to have a career in the NFL. It will be on sale at Hy-Vee’s supermakets and drug stores in Cedar Rapids-Marion (and only in Cedar Rapids-Marion) on Aug. 4. I’ll put a brief excerpt of that piece on the Hlog on Aug. 1.)
IOWA CITY — Derrell Johnson-Koulianos had just finished a 90-minute interview this summer in which questions were relatively few and the distances between them were sometimes far.
Loud talk or boastfulness weren’t part of his responses. Quiet, straightforward, earnest streams of his consciousness were.
“How did I do?” he asked with sincere concern after he finished filling a tape recorder and stuffing a notebook.
Expressing himself is important to him. Johnson-Koulianos likes to speak, to interact. He’ll surely do a lot of public communicating once his senior football season at Iowa is over and he tries to launch a career in the NFL. In fact, just try to stop him.
When asked for his hopes and dreams for the 2010 Hawkeyes, Johnson-Koulianos got wide-eyed with enthusiasm as he answered.
“We’ve gotten better every year I’ve been on the team,” he said. “We didn’t go to a bowl, then we went to the Alamo, the Outback, and the Orange. We’re trying to get better every year.
“There’s a sense of urgency in everyone’s demeanor. It’s exciting.
“You see that and it’s like ‘What can I do myself? These guys are all counting on me. Coach Ferentz is counting on me. Fans in Ottumwa, Iowa are counting on me. What am I doing? Did I watch film today? Did I eat right? Did I sleep enough to perform well tomorrow when I’m training?’
But for now, it’s making verbal tiptoe sideline catches, or at least trying to do so. See, he has occasionally said and done things in his career that got him a little sideways with Iowa’s coaches.
For instance, he appeared at a 2007 postgame session with reporters wearing a hat and sunglasses. That isn’t the Iowa way, not under coach Kirk Ferentz.
That got him barred from attending the team’s in-season Tuesday interviews with the media for the rest of that season, and he hasn’t been back since. Maybe this year.
Other things have cropped up. They haven’t been legal problems, and certainly weren’t the big black eyes to the Iowa program that a few other players produced early in Johnson-Koulianos’ time here. Without being specific, Ferentz once called DJK’s issues “banana peels.”
But he certainly hasn’t done much slipping on the field. Johnson-Koulianos is one of just three players in Hawkeyes history to lead his team in receptions for three straight years. Last year he had the team’s first kickoff return for a touchdown in seven seasons, and it pulled Iowa back into its game at Ohio State.
With good health, Johnson-Koulianos likely will become his school’s all-time leader in catches and receiving yards. Not many Hawkeye receivers have made as many big plays in big games.
A quarterback for much of his high school career in Campbell, Ohio, Johnson-Koulianos quickly became a gamer for Iowa at receiver, and has continued to improve. The following was said by his Hawkeye starting quarterback, Orange Bowl roommate, and fellow Ohioan, Ricky Stanzi:
“We tend to spread the ball out, but Derrell is definitely a guy, when we need a play, he’s there to make the play. In that sense, he feels like a big-time receiver.
“ I know he’s a guy who won’t be thinking about that. He just goes out and try to make as many plays as he can. If it happens, it happens. He’s a guy who’s more focused on winning.”
Winning is a topic that gets Johnson-Koulianos going.
“The only thing that matters to me right now is how good can I be this year?” he said. “What can I do to help myself, Ricky Stanzi, Kirk Ferentz, Ken O’Keefe, Gary Barta, Brandon Wegher? What can I do to help all of us achieve what we’re trying to achieve? And we’re trying to achieve the premium.”
That might be the prototypical Johnson-Koulianos statement. It’s a team-oriented declaration, but it included an admission of high hopes.
Which is no crime and never was. But most of his teammates tell the media they dismiss preseason predictions and polls as irrelevant, say they are just focused on daily improvement, and don’t discuss team goals in public.
That’s exactly what the coaches want, expect, and perhaps demand. Such comments may not be 100 percent candid, but they do nothing to increase the burden of outside expectations or produce motivational fodder for opposing teams.
But “DJK” isn’t afraid to say “BCS,” as in chasing a national title. He sees rose petals, not banana peels.
“What can we do in 2010 Iowa football that Bob Sanders wasn’t able to do, Robert Gallery wasn’t able to do, Dallas Clark, Brad Banks weren’t able to do?” he posed. “What can Koulianos, Clayborn, Stanzi and Sash do? What are they going to be remembered by as a whole?”
When reminded a football can take funny bounces, he quickly conceded it bounced his team’s way more often than not in 2009. But he continued:
“Our quarterback, our running back depth, we’ve got receivers in place, experience on both sides of the ball — I can’t find any reason why we can’t do something special that’s really never been done at Iowa.
“Our coaches, they’ve got it figured out. They know what they’re doing. You won’t find a more invested, well-skilled group of men.
“If we’re going to do something special, this is the year to do it.”
Maybe an Iowa coach will suggest to this player that he try to tone it down a notch this Friday when Iowa holds its annual Media Day. Maybe a coach will tell him he appreciates the positivity and the passion, but will suggest leaving the “doing something special” talk to the fans.
“I never mean to do anything to deliver anything negative or reflect our university in a negative light,” Johnson-Koulianos said. “Maybe sometimes that’s been the case.”
Punishments or media bans from the coaching staff, he said, have “not been from a lack of preparation, a lack of effort. It’s been things off the field. I’m not perfect. I do make mistakes. I’ve been late to things. I’ve said things to media that maybe I shouldn’t have. I’ve worn inappropriate clothes maybe at certain times like a hat and sunglasses.
“Whenever I’m in the public eye or in front of the media, I’m reflecting everybody.”
Johnson-Koulianos is as much a Hawkeye fan as anyone who will cheer for him this fall. Part of a wall in his duplex apartment is covered with photos of teammates and even former Iowa players. He flies a Hawkeye flag on his front porch.
He professes total adoration for his school and team. He raves about his quarterback, about his coaches, about star defensive end Adrian Clayborn, who lives a floor above him in that duplex in a quiet Iowa City neighborhood.
“Here at Iowa for me, it’s been an amazing journey,” Johnson-Koulianos said. “It’s been eventful. It’s been a struggle at times, but there have been so many great things that have happened.
“If you had asked me where I would be playing college football when I was a senior in high school, I think if had to guess 100 times, Iowa would have been the 100th guess. But this is where I ended up for a reason. I’ve learned so many things I don’t think I would have learned anywhere else.
“Through my high school career I wanted to be an Ohio State Buckeye. Michael Jenkins, Ted Ginn — I wanted to be those guys. I wanted to be in that uniform. And it didn’t work out for numerous reasons.
“But when I got to Iowa there was this mystique about it, and I embraced it. I love it.”
On Friday, Johnson-Koulianos presumably will meet his team’s Media Day throng of reporters. It’s safe to say they’ll get plenty of quotes from a hungry receiver.
“It’s my last year,” he said. “There are so many things that are motivating.”