When New England Patriots defensive lineman Vince Wilfork talks about being coached by Pepper Johnson over the past six seasons, one of the main aspects he appreciates is the connection between coach and player.
Wilfork says he sometimes forgets that Johnson is a coach because his passionate, energetic approach almost makes it seem like he's on the field with them.
"He is a player's coach and a big part of that is that he actually played the game," Wilfork said. "A lot of things happen on the field, and because he's been in the same predicament as us, he understands exactly what we see and how blocking schemes develop. It's real easy to play for a coach like that.
"It also makes it a lot easier for a group of guys in a room, when somebody is talking to them about playing a certain technique, or a fit here, when it's coming from a guy who has done it. So those are different people -- the Xs' and O's and then somebody talking X's and O's who has played the game and understands it, like Pepper."
Johnson's coaching credentials are under the spotlight this offseason as Patriots coach Bill Belichick considers how to fill the team's vacant defensive coordinator position. If Belichick stays in-house, the two leading candidates are the 45-year-old Johnson and 35-year-old linebackers coach Matt Patricia.
Wilfork believes Johnson would be a great choice after working his way up the Patriots' ranks -- first as assistant linebackers coach (2000), then inside linebackers coach (2001-2003) and most recently as defensive line coach (2004-2009).
"Playing under him, I want to see him as coordinator, I think he deserves it," Wilfork said. "He has all the tools to be one."
After his playing career concluded in 1998, Johnson tried his hand at broadcasting for one season before realizing it wasn't for him. So he went into coaching, coming to New England as part of the Bill Walsh minority coaching fellowship program in 2000.
Johnson figured that he'd pick up some helpful tips in training camp and then work as a high school coach, but Belichick kept him on staff and he's been in New England since. One additional niche that he has carved out is running the scout team defense, for which he has been annually praised by Belichick.
One of Johnson's longtime boosters is former teammate Carl Banks. In his current role as a radio broadcaster for the Giants, Banks said he studies film the same way he would as a player and he'll often run his opinions by Johnson. Through those conversations, Banks has gained an appreciation for Johnson's coaching acumen.
"One of the most impressive things to me is that his core principles for sound defense and winning football haven't been compromised, starting with solid fundamentals," Banks said. "He's going to have a unit that won't have a lot of missed tackles or blown coverages."
Banks also touched on Johnson's passion, which was often infectious in the huddle.
"As a teammate, if I was in a fight, the first person I'm calling is Pepper Johnson, and the second person is [former Giants nose guard] Jim Burt," he said. "I guarantee Pepper would be there without a doubt. He has great leadership skills, he is passionate for the game, and if you're playing for him you'll do anything for the guy."
If Belichick settles on Johnson, it won't be the first time he's asked Johnson to step into a leadership role.
Banks recalled that when both were playing for Belichick's Cleveland Browns in 1994, the team had a preseason stretch without its defensive coordinator, Rick Venturi. So Belichick asked Johnson to take on added responsibility.
"We were in Chicago for a scrimmage and that's when Rick was having some health issues, so when we got back to Cleveland, he called Pepper and me into his office and asked Pepper to run the defense," Banks said. "It was like he was a player-coach. He was running Belichick's defense back then."
Banks also remembered how the Browns prepared for their playoff game against the Patriots that season, which he said provided an example of how Johnson breaks down games. The players studied quarterback Drew Bledsoe and noticed that his throws usually came on his fifth step and he first looked at tight end Ben Coates, then the outside receiver.
So after consulting with the team's coaches, they tailored their playoff plan around disrupting Bledsoe's timing, which was successful and helped produce a victory.
"Those are simple, Bill Belichick-type things -- understanding what teams like to do and then you can better defend it. Pepper was doing that as a player," Banks said. "He is a classic gym rat. You could never talk enough football with him. That's just him.
"He has great knowledge and great instincts. I think the key right now as a coordinator in this league is not necessarily X's and O's, but the instincts of when to call those X's and O's. It's having the finger on the pulse of what your team may need and then knowing when to call that in the game. I think that is where Pepper is head and shoulders above a lot of people."
Over the past six seasons in the defensive line room, Wilfork said that Johnson has held little back, creating a high standard for his linemen. It's an approach that has won over many players.
"Pep gives it to you raw and uncut, and whatever comes out of his mouth, you have to respect that because you know he's been a player at this level, on championship defenses," Wilfork said. "I like a coach who looks you in the face and lets you know how he feels about you. There is no beating around the bush. He has a lot of respect from me as a coach and as a person."