Sophomore tight end Johnson agrees, such impressions are correct.
"This year the offense wants to take a more physical, a more dominant stance than last year. We want to be just as physical as the defense. We don't think they have any advantage on us and so we want to be more physical than them."
Lest anyone suspect some sort of role-reversal is going on here, fear not. Mullen and coordinator Les Koenning and staff have kept the offense focused on their primary spring goals. The results, in practices and even during the course of some scrimmaging, have been encouraging. Though far from a finished product and with some serious questions awaiting summer and preseason answers such as on the line of scrimmage, good things are seen from Mississippi State's offense so far.
Among them, Johnson himself. In fact the former wideout-turned-tight end has been very, very good this spring. Each practice, Johnson has come away with at least one impressive catch and other more routine-looking grabs. Not that there is anything routine about it, of course, it's just how smooth he and Tyler Russell have been making it look.
Take last Friday's game-type scrimmage, where Johnson was the starting quarterback's target of choice with six receptions and an unofficial 87 yards and one touchdown. Now, Johnson also dropped one ball; worse, it was in the end zone. So it's not a flawless report card this camp.
It still is most promising for the real season. Not just what Johnson is doing, either, but most of the three-deep at the four eligible-receiver positions Mississippi State has made the spring base-offense. "Well, that just comes from a good relationship with my quarterbacks!" Johnson said. "Our quarterbacks make our receivers look good, and our receivers make our quarterbacks look good. It's a give-and-take situation."
As long as Johnson is running these successful spring routes the quarterbacks will keep giving him the ball. It's worth adding that several split ends and slot receivers have also had impressive semesters of their own. So Johnson is not a one-man band in the passing plans. For that matter classmate and cohort Brandon Hill has come away with his own good practice days. And at times redshirt Rufus Warren has risen to the opportunity in third- and second-team situations.
So, no, Johnson doesn't envision himself as, necessarily, the go-to guy of the 2012 air game. "I'm just trying to help my team, anything that comes with it. If it's catching, blocking, or decoy, anything. I just want to help my team so we get better as a whole."
That said…should Russell and Prescott let their eyes track #80 more than most it only makes sense. Johnson has made the move from true split end to a ‘compact' style of tight end a winning one. Emerging mid-season in 2011 he caught 11 balls but three of them were for touchdowns and his average play went for almost 19 yards. That's quite a change from the typical tight end grab in underneath coverage for modest gains.
Now Johnson is building on his debut to assert himself more in 2012 passing plans. He's earned that right and it shows this spring.
"Actually I do feel better in-synch than I did last year. A little part of it comes from confidence, being one year-in. So I have more confidence in myself, and when you have confidence you can go out there and play more freely without thinking so much. I think that's a big part of it."
Speaking of big… Johnson played at a listed 225 as a redshirt freshman, and went into spring at 230. The real number right now? "227," Johnson reported. "I'm pretty much the same weight, and I'm just more comfortable." The fact is this third-year soph does not look even that stout. He has a wide receiver's physique more than what one thinks of a tight end. But he is really playing above the weight and doesn't mind mixing it up with defenders at all.
"Coach Balis and his whole staff have done a great job of making me comfortable and making me good, finding a great weight to play with. I keep my cardio, keep my body fat down, so I give all the credit to him and his staff."
By the way, strength coaches don't really make players ‘faster' per se. Maybe clean-up some footwork and get guys more efficient in how they move, but players bring their speed to campus with them. Ahhh, but Johnson is a fine example of ‘feeling' faster because he knows what he is doing and thus not wasting effort and time getting off the ball and into his route.
"Yeah, I honestly do feel like I've got a little bit faster than last year. I say that because I felt I've been grinding hard this spring, I went hard this winter. So I do feel like I've got a little bit faster."
For that matter the whole State offense is operating at a quicker clip this spring. As Koenning said in February, based on the personnel at-hand the attack will build on the approach developed last fall out of injury necessity. To wit, when Marcus Green and Kendrick Cook were sidelined by injuries, State went to smaller tight ends Johnson and Hill and thus to four-receiver sets. It might not have been an ideal combination with, say, the strengths of a Chris Relf.
But with Russell now at the helm, the more targets getting out and about the better. At least that makes sense on the playbook page. Johnson is certainly sold.
"I think it's going to be a pretty hard matchup. Because a lot of teams in the SEC don't run this offense, so a lot of teams don't prepare for this offense every week. Yes, I think it should be something good for us this year and something hard to prepare for this fall."
For their part the hard preparations continue this final week of spring work. Mullen has booked the Bulldogs for Thursday and Friday sessions, the first with scrimmaging and the latter more of a preparation itself for Saturday's intrasquad game at Scott Field. Suddenly the practice days are winding down and there are things Mississippi State still wants to address before packing up the gear for summer.
But so far…so good, Johnson believes. Maybe even very good. "We're making improvement and that's all we want to do," he said.
"I feel we're pretty strong. I feel we're a step ahead of where we were at this same time last year. I just feel we can't get complacent as a team. We have to keep going. We have to hit the summer stronger, hit the weights, and try to go into the fall and have a great year."