"I felt so good to be back with my brothers, you just don't know," Johnson said. "Words can't really explain. It was so emotional to come to the Dog Walk, I mean I'd been greeting the players in the locker room but to go through the Dog Walk knowing I'm fixing to hit the field was emotional for me. So I just felt good."
Mississippi State's offense shared that feeling. True, they had performed quite well enough already through five victories with no lack of pass-catchers and route-runners. Still there was a degree of Dog anticipation about getting Johnson back. He'd shown enough signs as a 2011 redshirt freshman with 11 catches, three of them for touchdowns, to tantalize what '12 might hold.
Besides…with Marcus Green and Brandon Hill hauling in all those balls, there was a sense of missing out on the tight end fun this season. "I knew coming in the offense we were going to run from the jump. So there was a little pressure to get back soon and help my team. I mean…yeah, kinda!"
It didn't take long to get Johnson involved against Tennessee, as he was the successful target for Tyler Russell on a 25-yard connection. "Yeah, that first catch was a good one too. It got my nerves down. Basically I was back so it was good, too, to get my feet wet." But the best was yet to come, at the very end.
On the nine-yard line with fourth down and 15 seconds remaining most at Scott Field—not least the visiting Volunteers—expected Russell to take the snap and either ramble around to burn clock or hand it to LaDarius Perkins for the same purpose. That was not what the Bulldogs said in the huddle, where Johnson heard his name.
"Yeah, the play was called for me so I knew I had expectations. And Coach had trust in me at that time of the game. So I felt I had to prove myself." As Russell quick-dropped before a fooled defense Johnson slipped clear off the left side and to the end zone, where he saw the high throw. A very high throw.
"I told him that!" Johnson smiled. "But I understand why he was doing it. He was throwing it for only me. If I can't catch it nobody else can catch it. It was just a smart play by Tyler knowing the situation. He was doing what he had to do." So, Johnson did what he had to do going left-to-right along the back line; he jumped, stretched, and reeeeeached.
"Yeah, that comes in practice and practicing over and over so you're prepared for the game. Like Coach Mullen says, if you practice well you'll be prepared for the game." Maybe, but it took more than simple preparation to make the one-handed grab with the left hand and come down with the shoe—a bright pink one which made identification easier—unquestionably in bounds.
It's a catch that will make many a highlight video of 2012, not just Mississippi State's. It also affirmed Johnson was all the way back from tearing his right pectoral muscle in a scooter accident at home. Yes, by the way, he says he could have done it with the right arm just the same if necessary. "It's good, fully, no pain, no nothing."
"I give all my credit to strength coach. Coach Balis and his staff and Justin and the trainers. Some days I felt down and some days I felt a little tired. But they kept staying on me, kept me motivated, so when I did get healthy I could hit the ground running."
By the same token Johnson did not waste valuable pre- and in-season time just watching the tight ends and wide receivers at play. He worked, on his own if necessary, just a man and his Jugs machine which Coach Dan Mullen thought was going to burn-out from constant use.
"I try to catch as many balls as I can," Johnson explained. "I have like a rule: if I drop one ball in practice I try to catch a hundred Jugs for that one ball." Though to be fair, few have witnessed Johnson dropping even one ball in a practice day. Not for nothing is he regarded as having the best hands on the squad, a reputation earned last season with some excellent catches and magnified this past spring.
So when he took a bad fall and tore the chest muscle, it caused real concerns in the Bulldog camp. Fortunately a sixth season for Green and the development of Hill, like Johnson a converted wide receiver, filled the tight end bill just fine for half a season.
Now with Johnson back? "It takes a lot of stress off Green and Brandon and Rufus. And it takes a lot of stress off the offense." For that matter it relieves Johnson's own tensions that had built in August and September while he watched and waited and wondered when.
"God puts us through tests. I've went through a lot of test and stayed faithful and kept my head high and kept working." With the first-game-back results which bode that much more for the rest of this season. The potential of this complete offense is only beginning to be recognized, even if it means spreading the ball around to one more Dog.
"I mean, everybody has a job to do," Johnson said. "That's why I feel this team is on the same key, everybody is working for the next guy. You have to understand every play is not designed for you, but it's designed for somebody so you have to do your job to make the play as good as possible."
And the possibilities seem boundless for this bunch of tight ends…as long as they can keep Johnson from taking another tumble. There wouldn't be any offers from teammates of sharing a ride or sticking to a bicycle, hey? "Nah, they haven't given me any grief, that's past!"