Gator Bowl Jump-Starts Johnson Into 2013

If Malcolm Johnson seems intent on making up for lost 2012 time these December days, well, who can blame him? The sophomore has taken to Gator Bowl practicing with a passion so he can finish a frustrating season on a high note…and get a jump on next year's opportunity.

"We're using this time to get better," Johnson said. "I've still got things that I'm trying to master at the tight end position."

The Bulldog mind might boggle at what Johnson could be capable of should he indeed master the art of blocker/eligible receiver. Because in his limited—for various reasons—appearances Johnson has shown himself capable of making plays. Big plays even, which serve as highlights for his two-season career.

Ooops, make that one-and-a-half seasons. As all recall Johnson had to miss the first five games of his sophomore season after the July incident which left him with a torn pectoral muscle. Even when activated in October he wasn't completely in his old stride which showed in some catch-less Saturdays.

But there were times the talent flashed through. Such as the spectacular one-handed stab on the back-line for the touchdown that clinched State's victory over Tennessee. Johnson closed out the campaign with five catches worth exactly 100 yards in just the last three games; giving him eight total grabs in 2012 for 147 yards and the touchdown.

Not shabby at all considering the layoff, as well as the presence of so many more pass-catchers in the Bulldog passing plans this season. Still Johnson expected more of himself, even after nearly three months of recovery. This is motivating him during campus bowl practices. Well, that and the added responsibility that comes with being one of the veterans.

"Marcus Green is still helping me and I'm helping other guys, and stuff like that," Johnson said. "So we're trying to take this time to get better as a group and help us as a team."

It's not as if teammates of any age need reminding how Johnson can work. They saw it during his rehab schedule, or rather saw half of it.

"When they were practicing me and Coach Balis were doing one-on-one workouts. I usually worked out twice a day: along with the team, and then I'd do my own workout. So when I did get back healthy I could come back on the field."

Now he is back, to just about where everyone anticipated after Johnson showed freshman flashes over the second half of the season. When the 2011 offense adapted mid-year to make passing a bigger part of plans the former wideout-turned-tight end came into his own. He caught touchdowns against UAB, Kentucky, and Arkansas and averaged a startling 18.7 yards on all receptions. In the Music City Bowl he made a catch good for 37 yards. This season his longest play was a 27-yarder in the win over Arkansas.

Those sorts of yards-after-catch show why Coach Dan Mullen and staff took a competent high school split end and projected him as a college tight end, albeit one suited for a spread-system. Then again Johnson has developed a physique his prep peers wouldn't recognize. He looks stouter than the listed 230 pounds with no loss in agility or activity.

In fact, were one to get technically ticky about titles, Johnson explains his ‘tight end' identity is much more comparable to the slot-receiver role played by Chad Bumphis. "The ‘H' and tight end are basically the same thing." Johnson suits this script admirably since he can still take on linebackers and the like in blocking just as if he'd begun in-tight with the tackle. Or break off the ball into short and intermediate routes, where Johnson puts to good use what are acknowledged as the best hands on the offense.

So call him what one likes, "We're very versatile. We've big guys and we're guys that can run routes and block and all that."

Several guys he means. Their corps will lose its most noted member of course as Green concludes his sixth season on New Years Day 2013. Green was the team's fourth-leading receiver this year with his 19 grabs for 215 yards; but he was second in touchdown production with a career-best six scores. His production, as well as the availability of Brandon Hill and Rufus Warren, allowed Johnson the liberty to recover at his own pace. Or maybe it made him hustle through rehab that much faster in fear of falling behind?

Either way, when the Bulldogs report for spring practices it is Johnson who owns the leadership status among tight ends. All of them, since Mississippi State returns Johnson, Hill, Warren, and redshirt Gus Walley along with practiced walk-ons. And at least one mid-year transfer expects to join them in what is looking like an increasingly-crowded meeting room.

"I'm very excited, this year we have more depth coming in," said Johnson. But this isn't the only reason for his 2013 excitement. "I really do think it will be more of a focus next year."

Johnson is correct, and not just because Mississippi State is graduating the three starting wide ends and has lots of pass-catching to replace. These tight ends have been assembled very much for how they suit State's spread schemes; not just for running or passing, but for whoever is doing the throwing, be it laser-armed Tyler Russell from the pocket or big Dak Prescott on the move. Johnson sees a tight end, or two, to suit every situation.

Especially as two of the youngsters develop. Take Warren, who served as the extra blocking guy in his second freshman year. That isn't all he brings to the gameplan reports Johnson. "Rufus is a big guy, but at the same time he's been working on catching. A lot of people might think he's just a hand-down guy but Rufus can really run routes."

Then there's redshirting rookie Walley, an even taller version of Johnson in many ways. This kid has had such a good camp as to be mentioned by teammates post-practices. It's all true, too, said Johnson.

"Yeah, Gus is going to be an explosive player for us next year. He's going to surprise a lot of guys…not to me, not to our team, we've seen him. But Gus is a good athlete and he's going to help us a lot next year. He's got some Dog in him, is what I like saying! He likes to put his foot in the mud, know what I'm saying?"

Well, maybe. The understandable part is how seriously Johnson and cohorts take both the opportunity and the responsibility to become bigger and better play makers.

"All of us are good at certain things, so it's basically coming to even it all out and become an overall tight end," Johnson said. "I'm excited. We should get more looks next year and all that."

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