Raiders rookie Jackson Powers-Johnson takes pride in protection

ByPaul Gutierrez ESPN logo
Wednesday, May 22, 2024

HENDERSON, Nev. -- The details of the game itself are a tad fuzzy in Jackson Powers-Johnson's mind some 16 years later.

Johnnie Lee Higgins punctuated his 53-yard punt return for a touchdown with a cartwheel and backflip ... Michael Bush rumbled into the end zone from 5 yards out for another score before Andrew Walter hit Chaz Schillens for a 2-point conversion ... JaMarcus Russell completed 2-of 5 passes for 13 yards while Stanford Routt and Hiram Eugene picked off J.T. O'Sullivan and Shaun Hill, respectively.

Powers-Johnson was 5 years old and entering kindergarten on Aug. 8, 2008, so it's no wonder the Las Vegas Raiders' second-round draft pick can't recall specifics of the Silver and Black's 18-6 preseason win over the San Francisco 49ers at the Oakland Coliseum that night. What he does recall from the first Raiders game he attended, though, is a certain feeling.

"My parents were just kind of holding me because all the fans were all crazy," Powers-Johnson laughed. "But I thought it was so cool that they were getting after it and cussing up a storm. You love fans like those; you don't want fans that are quiet and sit back and drink their tea.

"You want fans that are ready to go. So, they embody what kind of physicality you want to play with."

The way his parents embodied protection for him in the erstwhile Black Hole is the same sense of duty Powers-Johnson carries with him on the football field as a 6-foot-3, 320-pound offensive lineman.

You see, the 21-year-old rookie -- despite his size and numerous college honors for his play -- was tormented as a child.

"I got into this game for pretty much my mental health," he said. "I was a big, chubby kid growing up and I got bullied and my baseball coach was like, 'You know, you can hit those guys [in football] and not get in trouble.' And that's kind of how I got into it. And ever since then, I think my physicality and violence has kind of turned into more protection."

Protection. There's that word, that feeling again.

"There's no better honor or privilege than to protect somebody," Powers-Johnson added. "You think about our armed forces, think about police, you think about all of them protecting us. That's what we get to do on the field. So, it's a humbling thing for me to do, and it's exciting as well."

IT'S A FEELING all too familiar to former Raiders offensive lineman Richie Incognito, who has seen both ends of the bullying spectrum.

"It really gives people a big chip on their shoulder when they've been bullied like that, or you've been told you weren't good enough," Incognito told ESPN. "It's a broad topic that a lot of people have experienced, but I think you use that as motivation -- you've got a little bad ass in you ... you've got to have a little s--- in your grin. You've got to have a little something about you to be able to excel in this business and to be able to be great.

"You watch it on film, [Powers-Johnson is] out there. He has bad intentions. He wants to put people on the ground."

Sound familiar?

When Powers-Johnson took the practice field for the Raiders' recent rookie minicamp, there were double-takes galore as he cut a figure that was shockingly similar. He looked like a mini-Incognito, from his barrel chest to the way he wore his helmet to the position he was lined up at -- left guard.

Powers-Johnson, who launched a pad-wielding member of the training staff during drills, is an inch shorter and two pounds lighter than Incognito. The two have yet to meet face-to-face, though Incognito figures he'll be looking in a mirror when it does happen.

"I think the comparisons are great," Incognito said. "He carries himself like a bad ass. He's out there finishing plays. I think he's a great player. I really think that he's going to develop into a solid starter, a great starter ... he has the tenacity and he's out there giving great effort each and every play.

"He has good footwork. He works in the guys' bodies, and he knows how to lift defenders off the line of scrimmage. So, great kid, athletic kid, hard worker, and I really think the zone game that they'll run next year will fit his skill set."

And that part about seeing as a "protector" on the offensive line? Yeah, Incognito digs that about his young doppelgänger, too.

"There's nothing sexy about what we do," he said. "We go to work every day with that blue-collar mindset, get our lunch pail and go to work. So that's what kind of motivates us -- protecting our quarterback, getting our running back into the end zone, get him a whole bunch of yards. That's where the offensive line hangs their hat. It's the little things.

"It's the little shots that the quarterback doesn't take, giving him the extra half-second to complete the ball down the field. And it's those things that set the tempo for the rest of the team, that pride, that camaraderie. ... He understands what the game's all about."

NO CENTER IN the country protected his quarterback as well as Powers-Johnson did at Oregon last fall. The Rimington Award winner did not surrender a sack while giving up just one pressure in 471 pass-blocking snaps over 13 games.

But when the Raiders used the No. 44 overall draft pick on him, more than a few hackles were raised. After all, the Raiders had already re-signed starting center Andre James to a three-year contract for $24 million, with $16 million guaranteed.

No worry ... versatility may be just as important to Powers-Johnson as his desire to protect whoever wins the coming quarterback battle between returner Aidan O'Connell and free-agent veteran Gardner Minshew.

Powers-Johnson is moving to guard, and while he spent rookie minicamp on the left side veteran free-agent pick upCody Whitehair was there with the first-team offense at Tuesday's open-to-the media OTA practice. Dylan Parham, last year's starting left guard, was at right guard. Might the Raiders slide the rookie in at left guard, between veteran left tackle Kolton Miller and James?

Consider: as good as Powers-Johnson was at center for Oregon last fall, it was his first full season at the position. As a freshman, he played 81 snaps at right guard, 26 at left guard and 20 at center (he also played 31 on defense). As a sophomore, he played 350 snaps at right guard, 44 at center, five at right tackle and one at left guard.

Then came his breakout award-winning junior year at center in helping lead the Ducks to the Fiesta Bowl, which he skipped to prepare for the draft.

That didn't cause Raiders to blink, especially Pierce, who was all-in when describing Powers-Johnson.

"I just love the film," Pierce said. "I saw a guy that was gritty, that finished, that strained, that loved the physicality of the game. I saw a leader, I saw a winner, I saw a guy that just loves football. And you want that identity up front.

"But he has the attitude. I mean, talking to him on the phone was emotional, even for me, because of just how excited he was. And it was like, 'Damn, we got it right.' Maybe nobody else likes it, but we got it right because it's a match made in heaven."

One built on a sense of protection forged in the wild and wooly stands of the Oakland Coliseum nearly 16 years ago.

"There's so much rich history of people who are just absolutely nuts and just want to get after it and that's how I play, so I think it's just a great fit for me," Powers-Johnson said. "And then, also just being able to put on these colors, put it on the helmet, put it on my chest, is truly a dream come true. If you buy in to the logo on the front, it's going to bless the name on the back.

"The autumn wind is a pirate. I love it."

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