Working Late Pays Off For Bulldog Tight Ends

They were engaging in risky behavior had a coach knocked on the hotel room door. Friday bed check were long past and morning kickoff was only ten hours away, yet the two tight ends were still awake and talking. "We were up to about one, two o'clock going through our playbook," Malcolm Johnson said. "Marcus was showing me the looks and making sure I knew what I had to do."

Fortunately neither Malcolm Johnson or Marcus Green were caught being up late by Matt Balis. Even more happily they took advantage of that wee-hours study session in a big way. Both Green and Johnson came down with touchdown catches in Mississippi State's 21-3 victory at UAB.

Not only that, but the first scoring receptions for both these tight ends and for their position group as a whole. For that matter, the first tight end touchdown by a Bulldog since Green did the trick in the 2009 Egg Bowl. Talk about spectacular results from just a little extra effort. And scouting.

"It felt good," said Johnson. "It made us feel like we need to keep progressing, that we need to keep helping the team. It felt good, really."

Indeed it did. In Green's case because his touchdown play—on a tough one at that, as he had to go up and get Tyler Russell's high throw and still come down in bounds before striding across the goal—confirmed he is all the way back from the September 2010 knee injury. In Johnson's case now, it was just an affirmation that he is in the right position and right offense.

"It felt good. A long time coming. I mean I redshirted last year so it's been a long time. But it felt good, the hard work paid off from the off-season and summer."

Johnson has worked long and hard to make his place as a redshirt freshman. The ‘long' isn't really that long since there's many a 2010 rookie classmate yet to get in an end zone or make the big defensive play. In that regard Johnson is ahead of schedule. What made it seem long though was how this high school split end finds himself lining up much, much tighter to the line of scrimmage.

Nothing like a touchdown on the resume to make all the work and time worthwhile, eh?

"I feel more like a tight end," said Johnson. "Because I'm getting more into it. When you're in there you're so close to the linemen, the action happens so fast. But I feel like I'm more of a tight end now."

Johnson certainly proved it with his route and his catch there in the fourth quarter. His team was up 14-3 with half-a-period left, needing any sort of points just to seal the success. It looked like they'd come off a kick with 3rd-and-15 at the 20 yard line and the Blazers did a good job covering outside targets.

But they lost Johnson slipping through traffic and right down the middle to take a spot inside the five-yard stripe. Russell saw it and fired even as Johnson turned and saw the ball shooting his way. A little high maybe, but that proved no problem at all with this bullet.

"Yeah, I told Tyler I couldn't have dropped it! I felt like the ball caught me to be honest with you!" Johnson said. "But he threw a good ball and it was a great read, he threw it right over the head of the linebacker."

The catch doubled Johnson's total for the season; he had a 22-yarder against LSU three weeks earlier. Naturally this one was better…almost as good as could be under his own personal circumstances. The Tuscaloosa native was playing only 45 miles from home, after all, though his Northridge HS had never made it to Legion Field.

"It really was special. All my family was there, my mother and my father was there, my sister was there. My little niece was just born, she's seven months so it was the first game coming to see me play. So it was kind of special!"

If Mississippi State's coach figures rightly, Johnson could turn into something special himself. "When we recruited him we knew he was a playmaker, a good route runner, good hands," Dan Mullen said. "He's still learning but you like to see guys grow and develop. He played maybe twelve snaps Saturday, and as he continues to grow and develop hopefully he can play more and more."

As a tight end, too. Though signed as a wideout, and initially projected to become a motion-type target who could work out of the slot as a bigger counterpart to speedsters like Chad Bumphis, he has made his way to the blocker/receiver role. TE Coach Scott Sallach made the suggestion in spring, qualifying it by telling Johnson to keep his weight in the receiver range.

"He wanted me to keep doing all the receiver things at the time, but start learning the tight end playbook at the same time. Actually I think Marcus knew before I knew! Because he kept telling me you might be a tight end, how big you're getting when you weigh-in every day. Marcus kept persuading me that tight end is the fit for you, I was kind of being stubborn; nah, I wanted to play receiver. But it came to work out well for me."

Especially so when State lost big tight end Kendric Cook just before the season with a neck problem. Johnson and classmate/fellow wideout Brandon Hill had practiced as ‘small' tight ends in spring so the position wasn't left empty. Now Green—himself signed as a running back years ago—is helping develop the youngsters to share his job this year and take it over entirely in 2012.

"They're very similar," Mullen said. "Marcus is a senior and maybe more developed physically. But Malcolm is a guy who can do a lot of similar things."

Mississippi State will surely need similar big things in the second half of this season to stay on bowling schedule and get some much-needed SEC wins. An expanded air attack that involves any and all tight ends is one step in the process, hopefully relaxing coverage where the true wideouts can get to catching the numbers of balls projected in preseason. And, of course, giving the running backs room to work.

Johnson said it's been a good week in practices for Saturdays inter-Divisional shootout with South Carolina (11:21ct) with Chris Relf and Russell distributing the ball and the offense finding that rhythm Mullen has called for. No, he did not offer any clues which quarterback has the lead on starting status. Nor should it matter. "Oh, I've got good chemistry with all my quarterbacks. I like all my quarterbacks!"

And he most assuredly likes being fully involved with the gameplan, especially after a spring injury that set him back a step just when he was making the position move. This too, he said, has worked out for the best after all.

"It let me know you can't take nothing for granted. This is what I love to play and what I love to do, and when you do something for a long time you may start taking it for granted. It can be taken away from you any second now, so I try to go full-time and it and try to grasp it and take full advantage of it."

Just the same as Johnson has taken advantage of tutoring from his senior teammate. "Marcus is a great leader, he's teaching me every day. And he's my roommate so when I go home we talk about it all the time. I'm thanking for Marcus teaching me and maybe one day I'll be able to lead like Marcus."

Even if it means burning some midnight oil before game days. Hey, it worked out really well last time...

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