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Johnson, Ihenacho Bringing Out A Friendly Competition

It's only June, but the competition for the strong safety position has already developed between free agent signee Jeron Johnson and Duke Ihenacho.

Jeron Johnsons says, "There's no bad blood."

Duke Ihenacho says, "It's all love. It's always been all love."

Based on that portrait of their relationship, it would be difficult to decipher the fact that the two of them are battling for the same position, strong safety, and believe they have the tools and talent to start ahead of the other.

But there is truth in their bond, just like there is truth in knowing one of them will eventually sit higher on the depth chart than the other. Johnson and Ihenacho grew up just 30 minutes away from each other in Southern California, played in the same college conference (Mountain West) and have the same friends. Vying for a starting job doesn't break years of camaraderie.

"Our friendship is still good," Johnson said, before Ihenacho backed up his claim. "There's no love lost off the field. We still hang out on the weekends or whenever we go out, we still hang out together. But it's a job and we both want it. We're just out here trying to compete, that's it."

This is not a particularly new situation – position battles happen all the time in the NFL – and competition is something head coach Jay Gruden believes is present at every position this season, a luxury he didn't necessarily have in his first year with the team.

"They're handling it fine. Everybody understands in pro football, man, there's going to be somebody behind you, somebody next to you you're going to have to compete with every day," Gruden said. "In order to keep your job, you've got to maintain a high level of excellence. That's a standard we're trying to preach around here."

What makes their particular battle fascinating, however, remains in their similarities.

Both Johnson and Ihenacho have had limited playing time in recent years but are familiar with performing on big stages. For the last two years, Johnson was part of Super Bowl runs with the Seahawks, while Ihenacho, injured with the Redskins for most of last season, spent 2013 with the AFC Champion Broncos.

"I've started. I've played games. I've been in the Super Bowl. I have experience and I'm a competitor," Ihenacho said. "It's been like that. Nobody's given me anything. I was an undrafted free agent, and then on the practice squad and worked my way up to the starting position. I'm no stranger to it. It's kind of familiar territory."

"You're trying to change the culture and we're all working very hard to do that," Gruden said. "You bring in some people with some great leadership skills and have been at winning programs, it's important. They know how to win and how to prepare to win."

Check out images from the Washington Redskins' OTA practice on Thursday, June 11, 2015, at Redskins Park in Loudoun County, Va.

Ihenacho said the coaches promised a fair and open competition and have held true to their word. Both he and Johnson have been rotating with the first-team and second-team defenses, alternating each day. It's been a learning process for both them and their new defensive coaching staff.

Learning to adapt their game to the schemes under defensive coordinator Joe Barry and defensive backs coach Perry Fewell, it will take a few months – for Johnson, changing teams, for Ihenacho, regaining confidence from injury – to get used to their styles.

Johnson admitted during the first week of OTAs he had slipped back into his Seattle days during a set of plays. But he's adjusted since then and credits his football instincts, the ones he improved in the shadows of Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas, to picking up his new responsibilities.

With nearly a full season to recover, reflect and improve, Ihenacho said he's leaned heavily on physical improvements.

"I'm lighter, I'm leaner. I can take better care of my body. I'm smarter," Ihenacho said. "I don't think I'll be throwing my body in places that I shouldn't throw my body in this year. I know it's a long season. I have more patience. So I can see the field better."

All of this, of course, remains to be seen.

It's still June, and for now, both players are intent on making each other stronger players, counseling the other when needed.

"Whatever he does makes me better, whatever I do makes him better," said Johnson, who was never deterred in coming to the Redskins knowing Ihenacho was on the roster. "We just feed off one another. There's no bad blood off the field at all. If anything, if I see him do something wrong, I'll help him or tell him, and if I do something wrong, he'll tell me."

"There's no animosity," Ihenacho said.  "We understand the nature of the business, we understand the competition. Somebody has to play."

Whatever skills they bring to the strong safety position – the playmaking from Johnson, Ihenacho's nose for the ball – will eventually get sorted. For Johnson, and the ultimate decision makers, it's too early to handicap their race.

"I've got to control what I can control: that's my effort, and what I can do at practice," Johnson said. "It's hard to judge anything right now in T-shirts. We'll see when the pads come on." 

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