Jeremiah Johnson sensed something was wrong with his foot, but he wasn't ready to process the signals his body was sending.
After sweating with his teammates through weeks of spring practices and summer training camp, it seemed too sudden — too cruel and random — for Maryland's starting cornerback to be injured in the first game of the season on a routine special-teams play.
The redshirt junior was blocking for kick returner Stefon Diggs against Florida International on Aug. 31 when his left foot buckled and one of his toes was pushed backward at an awkward angle. Johnson returned to the game shortly afterward but later said "I couldn't really move."
The diagnosis was a fractured toe. He knew what lay ahead: a long, arduous push to try to recover in time to make a meaningful contribution on the field before the season ended.
Johnson, a leader who is immensely popular with his teammates, might just make it.
His effort to return has become a back story to Maryland's Military Bowl on Friday against Marshall at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis.
Maryland (7-5) could use him. Led by junior quarterback Rakeem Cato, Marshall (9-4) has averaged 43 points and 502.3 yards per game this season.
Johnson, who enrolled in 2010 after attending Suitland in Prince George's County, was a redshirt when Maryland last appeared in a postseason game. His coaches and teammates would get a lift from seeing the cornerback — a member of the Terps' 10-player council that acts as a liaison between players and coaches — healthy enough to play in his first bowl game Friday.
"When he got the injury, it was devastating for him and we lost something with his leadership not being there," Maryland coach Randy Edsall said. "The neat thing about J.J. is he never hung his head."
Maryland center Sal Conaboy seemed to brighten at the prospect of Johnson's return. "He's such a great guy," Conaboy said. "To see him go down when I knew he was going to have a successful year, that's tough. You definitely root for him to come back. I'd be ecstatic for him."
Johnson, who started all 12 games in 2012 and led the team in pass breakups, said all the right things during his recovery. He talked about how well Maryland's backup cornerbacks — freshman Will Likely and senior Isaac Goins — were performing.
Johnson "is such a good leader that he doesn't show how much it bugs him [to be injured] because he tries to be there for everyone else," Conaboy said. "But you can tell it bugs him."
In addition to Johnson, the Terps lost senior starting cornerback Dexter McDougle to a season-ending shoulder injury against Connecticut on Sept. 14. Johnson was two weeks into his recovery when McDougle went down.
"They first told me I would be out eight weeks," Johnson said. "I thought that would be the Syracuse game [on Nov. 9]. And so that was kind of like my target game."
But Johnson could not move well enough then to play.
"I had no choice but to be patient," he said. "You can't control every situation, but what you can control is your attitude. I think I grew as a man first and as a football player second."
Maryland still finished the regular season ranked fifth among the Atlantic Coast Conference's 14 teams in pass defense, surrendering an average of 215.8 yards per game.
Johnson said it would have been "selfish" to come back before he was ready "and be a liability for the team."
The player vented in his own way. He wrote on Twitter. "I feel like I'm going crazy!!!" he tweeted Oct. 16. "Gotta get back."
He tweeted Nov. 22 about his mother, Angeline Johnson. "Thank God for my mother, man. She really has been keeping me sane the past few months." He began writing poetry, even appearing at a talent show for Maryland athletes Dec. 10 to read his work.
Finally, he was cleared for limited action and got in for two plays against North Carolina State on Nov. 30 — the team's final ACC game before departing for the Big Ten next year.
Edsall "had told me before the game [I might play] if something came up. He didn't want to have to rush me," Johnson said. "Isaac got banged up for a play or two. He just came right back in."
Johnson is hoping his brief appearance might lead to an enhanced role Friday.
"That's out of my control," Johnson said with a smile. "I'll be prepared if the situation presents itself."
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