Oct. 13, 2007
IOWA CITY — It’s one thing to be a household name. It’s more impressive to have your name roll of a tongue when it consists of 23 letters, 14 consonants and a hyphen.
Like many members of the Iowa Hawkeye football “Kiddie Corps,” redshirt freshman Derrell Johnson-Koulianos (pronounced dir-RELL KOU-lee-AUN-os) is not only making the most of his opportunities, but he is also making highlight-reel receptions and returns. Pressed into a starting role when junior Andy Brodell went down with a season-ending hamstring injury at Wisconsin, Johnson-Koulianos has responded with 15 catches for 174 yards and two touchdowns. He is currently fourth in the Big Ten Conference and 25th in the nation with 11 kickoff returns for 310 yards (28.2 average) and a long of 65.
“I’m making progress and I’m feeling more comfortable with every game,” Johnson-Koulianos said. “When I get the ball I know I have a chance to make a play, so I try to make the best of it.”
Johnson-Koulianos is one of many youngsters emerging this season for the Hawkeyes. All four receivers listed on Iowa’s two-deep roster for the Penn State game are freshmen — Johnson-Koulianos and Colin Sandeman at wide receiver and James Cleveland and Paul Chaney, Jr., at split end.
At the age of six Johnson-Koulianos started playing quarterback. As a senior at Cardinal Mooney High School in Campbell, Ohio, he rushed for 1,285 yards and scored 17 touchdowns in nine games. As a junior he rushed for 1,470 yards, passed for 1,300 more and accounted for 27 touchdowns. Johnson-Koulianos eventually signed with Iowa instead of Michigan and Michigan State. Even though most of his experience was at quarterback as a prep, the Iowa coaching staff knew that Johnson-Koulianos’ athletic ability merited a spot on the field, even if it required a position change.
“Iowa was one of the first teams to recruit me,” Johnson-Koulianos said. “I’ll always remember that. The first time I spoke with Coach Ken O’Keefe I could tell he was a class-act guy. I sat down and weighed my options and I knew I wanted to go somewhere where the people would have an impact on my life. I told my parents that I wanted to be a Hawkeye and they supported my decision from that time on.”
Hawkeye assistant Lester Erb coaches Johnson-Koulianos at both receiver and on kick returns. He recognizes the stellar contribution from the entire receiving and return group, which includes Johnson-Koulianos.
“Derrell has a great combination of size and speed,” Erb said. “Because of his size, he’s able to run through arm tackles. He’s also able to out-run people because of the angles they take on him. When he’s on the field, he has great hands and plays very fast.”
This season Johnson-Koulianos has seven kickoff returns of 20 or more yards with a long of 65 at Iowa State and 44 at Wisconsin. Last week at Penn State returned two kickoffs — one for 38 yards and the other for 24. His touchdown receptions have come from 21 (at Wisconsin) and 18 yards (vs. Indiana). Hawkeye fans are still smiling over the one-handed, tip-toe, touchdown reception against the Badgers. With Iowa trailing 7-3, Hawkeye quarterback Jake Christensen lofted the ball toward the far right pylon in the end zone. Johnson-Koulianos made separation with the Wisconsin defensive back and completed the impressive grab to give Iowa a 10-7 lead at halftime.
“Jake did a great job getting us down the field,” Johnson-Koulianos said. “He gave me the opportunity to make a play and I did. It felt good to get two feet down, too. That was my first college touchdown at a crucial time in a big game. That was special and something I will never forget.”
“I heard nothing but the best of the best about Coach Ferentz before I came here. He has a demeanor of business. Anything he’s said to me I’ll always remember. Whenever he’s speaking, I feel like he’s talking directly to me. He has such an understanding about what it means to be the head coach at Iowa. You see all the little things he does. Even if I wasn’t a player for him, I would respect him just because of the way he does his job. He’s just a great guy.”
Iowa WR/KR Derrell Johnson-Koulianos
The play was not overlooked by Iowa Head Coach Kirk Ferentz.
“The catch that Derrell made was just outstanding,” Ferentz said. “Whether you’re a senior or a freshman, that was just a great play, and against a good defender. And his kickoff returns have been impressive as well. The thing about him, I think all of us felt like he was a pretty good football player coming in, but he was not a receiver in high school, so he’s really been trying to learn that position. Fortunately, I think he’s getting a feel for that, and we think he’s got tremendous upside.”
Johnson-Koulianos models his game after Marvin Harrison of the Indianapolis Colts because Harrison does his job every week “and you never see him in the media for anything negative.”
“I want to take after a guy like that,” Johnson-Koulianos said.
Johnson-Koulianos might model himself after Harrison on the football field, but he is trying to emulate Ferentz in the game of life.
“I heard nothing but the best of the best about Coach Ferentz before I came here,” Johnson-Koulianos said. “He has a demeanor of business. Anything he’s said to me I’ll always remember. Whenever he’s speaking, I feel like he’s talking directly to me. He has such an understanding about what it means to be the head coach at Iowa. You see all the little things he does. Even if I wasn’t a player for him, I would respect him just because of the way he does his job. He’s just a great guy.”
Johnson-Koulianos, who enjoys the nickname DJK, was adopted at a young age. His original, biological name is Johnson, and he was adopted by Tony and Lauren Koulianos.
“I’m proud of my name,” Johnson-Koulianos said. “My parent’s last name is Koulianos and I wanted to represent them. Your last name represents who you are, so I knew that was something that definitely needed to be done.”
The Iowa program and fans are proud of the effort Johnson-Koulianos and the Hawkeyes have shown so far this season. To Johnson-Koulianos, there is no better reward for a hard week of practice than playing a game in front of the home crowd.
“I couldn’t ask for anything better than Kinnick Stadium,” Johnson-Koulianos said. “When you see a home game on our schedule, something inside you gets so happy. There’s nothing like playing in Kinnick. The people are going to show up and get behind us every game as if it’s a bowl game. That inspires you to go out and play every weekend. I love Kinnick — love it.”
Johnson-Koulianos said he is grateful to his coaches and Iowa fans who, in his opinion, have given him an opportunity to play the sport he loves.
“The more things I can do positive and in a positive way, that makes you feel better,” Johnson-Koulianos said.
Although receiver is his favorite position, Johnson-Koulianos has embraced the role of kick return specialist.
“I feel like with every kickoff return I have a chance to give our offense a spark,” Johnson-Koulianos said. “I want to give our offense a score or great field position every single time. If I don’t, then I can’t wait for the next kickoff.”
There have been few occasions this season when the returns by Johnson-Koulianos have not been substantial. There have been fewer times when the first defender on the scene makes a clean tackle.
“I’m one-on-one with this guy and he’s flying down the field,” Johnson-Koulianos said. “It’s just a field-vision thing. You have to use his angle and the way he’s coming down as a disadvantage to him.”
Johnson-Koulianos enjoys playing the piano and said that aside from football, his “first love has to be music.” To many fans, his performance so far this season has been as appealing as a flawless Mozart concerto. According to Johnson-Koulianos, there is much more to come.
“I’m excited for every play, every game,” he said. “We have the potential to do great things, it’s just a matter of time. We’ve got a lot left and Saturday can’t get here fast enough. That’s a chance for us to go out and show people that Iowa football is here.”
When his playing days are over, Johnson-Koulianos hopes to land a career utilizing his communication abilities as a sports broadcaster. For him, pronouncing a name like Derrell Johnson-Koulianos will be a cinch.
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