A year ago, Jakob Johnson was playing for the Stuttgart Scorpions of the German Football League. Now he’s the only fullback on New England Patriots roster. AP Photo/Elise Amendola

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — A native of Germany majoring in kinesiology at the University of Tennessee, Jakob Johnson was planning to become a physician. He has put those dreams on hold because of the reality of his situation: Against all odds, he’s an NFL player, and he’s studying every bit as hard as if he were in medical school.

“You see him sitting in the dining room just studying note cards, just going over his plays,” Patriots Coach Bill Belichick said earlier this week. “He puts literally every ounce of energy he has into this job and our team, and he’s totally earned everybody’s respect. … He’s a young player, he’s got a long way to go, there’s a lot of room for improvement, but he works very hard at it.”

Nobody had any reason to believe Johnson would be asked to put his note cards to use this early, but he was activated for Sunday’s 30-14 victory over the Jets and fullback James Develin was placed on injured reserve Monday, meaning that for the moment at least, Johnson is the only fullback on the roster.

Belichick paid Johnson, who appeared at fullback Sunday only for the game’s final play, a supreme compliment by mentioning him in the same sentence as one of his all-time favorites.

“I wouldn’t say it was quite a Steve Neal rise, but somewhere in that neighborhood,” Belichick said. “What he’s done has been remarkable. And in a relatively short period of time, but he works extremely hard.”

Neal, a two-time NCAA champion wrestler at Cal-Bakersfield, did not play football in college but spent 10 seasons at guard for the Patriots.

Johnson, 24, played football at Tennessee for four years and then caught 43 passes for 474 yards and four touchdowns as a tight end for the Stuttgart Scorpions of the German Football League in 2018.

“He definitely started out as the 91st person on the roster and had a long, long, long way to go,” Belichick said. “Back in the spring, I don’t think anybody ever envisioned him being on the roster at that point, or even being on the practice squad, to tell you the truth. But he continued to get better, and certainly his physicality and his toughness showed up in the preseason games and in the preseason practices against Detroit and Tennessee. And so he steadily worked his way into, call it a backup fullback role, and was activated for the game.”

Johnson landed in the Patriots’ laps, courtesy of the International Pathway program, part of which entails the players having football workouts and instruction sessions at IMG Academy in Florida.

“He was not on our radar,” Belichick said. “I don’t think we would have ever signed him. And when the players were kind of listed, there were a group of players that fell into this category, and we looked at that group. It was kind of like, ‘Is there anybody here you want?’ And so, based on some research and follow-up at Tennessee, really Butch (Jones, former Vols head coach, now an analyst at Alabama) recommended him to me and we didn’t really know much about the other guys. I can’t say that we were excited to have him, but based on what Butch said, you know, felt like he was a good player to work with, would work hard, would really try to get better, was a good teammate and all of those things that he had showed at Tennessee.”

Johnson said that when he was growing up in Stuttgart, Germany, youths were allowed to play only flag football until turning 15.

“I was like, ‘Man, when can I finally turn 15 so I can really play,’ ” Johnson said.

Before that, Johnson stayed busy competing in soccer, basketball, wrestling and team handball.

Johnson moved in with an aunt in Jacksonville, Fla., for one year of high school and was recruited to Tennessee as a linebacker, where he spent one season before switching to tight end for three years. Used mostly as a special teams player and at times a blocking tight end, Johnson earned SEC Academic Honor Roll distinction for three consecutive seasons. He caught three passes for 23 yards.

“When I was at UT, I had a lot of plans,” Johnson said. “I wanted to go to med school after football was over. I was in a bunch of really hard classes and now that I don’t have classes to worry about I take all that energy and try to focus it toward really being prepared and studying the plays.”

As for whether he still intends on attending medical school, he said he’s not looking past today.

“For me right now it’s football, a hundred percent,” Johnson said. “I told myself that if I was going to get this opportunity that I would come away just knowing football inside and out, knowing everything there is to know about it, so that’s just what I’m trying to do.”

He laughed when asked: Do you know it all yet?

“No, no, definitely not,” he said.

It remains to be seen whether Johnson’s football education is advanced enough to be used as a blocking back in games. If not, it won’t be because he short-changed himself on the preparation front.

Comments are not available on this story.