"Now it's looking to get one of those starting positions," he says. "It's just me making plays when my number is called."
#81 is certainly getting called on often through the early weeks of spring practices. Calling Johnson the preferred target might stretch things a little given how well Tyler Russell and other Bulldog quarterbacks are distributing the football during drills. No end, split or tight or whatever, is being ignored. What Johnson is showing a knack for however is not just getting hands on ball.
He has done good things with it. In one opening-week session Johnson went vertical for a good grab over a defender on the sideline. Next time-down he caught it over on the same side but in stride and crossed the entire field to find the right alley towards the end zone. He's also shown a more typical sort of big gainer ability with some pure post patterns and long haul-ins.
If one speculates that openings at all wide receiver spots have inspired the junior…one is correct.
"Right. And it's been a long time coming. Being behind the same guy for three years, it's a lot of pressure when they're gone. But you have to get the job done."
So far in spring Johnson is doing his job, very well, with the first rotation of receivers. Then again we've seen this before from both him and some other of the current underclassman wideouts. Johnson has been a spring star already, only to settle for second- or third-rotation roles in 2011 and '12. True, there were all those old Dogs ahead of him, so some slack must be cut.
Still, Johnson agrees he could have offered more to the offense in the past. Now, he should. "Yeah, I had to wait my turn. Actually it was trying to get the speed of the game. It took me a while to get it, but I think I've got it." Which offers reason to expect Johnson will pick up more than the 17 passes caught last season, two of them going for touchdowns against Middle Tennessee and Alabama in consecutive weeks.
"Last year that's what happened, it finally clicked for me," says Johnson. "Then changing receiver coaches…I'm not going to say it didn't help, but then it did." It's a fair point. The abrupt August adjustment from a familiar coach to Tim Brewster for the season was probably tougher on the underclassmen receivers than those elder statesmen. And now here Johnson is auditioning for a third position coach in as many years.
Fortunately it's been a pretty fast fit-in for Billy Gonzales and his new charges.
"I like Coach Gonzales. We had a couple of words one-on-one, and he gave me a DVD from when he was coaching at University of Florida. I've been watching it like a hawk and trying to learn from that DVD." Or more accurately from the Gators shown making plays in 2008. "When they won the championship that year," Johnson specifies. So, does close review suggest how he and Bulldog teammates can make the same sort of plays? "Yeah, I say that all the time!"
Great stuff. But why are some folk back home around Hattiesburg saying ‘tight end' around Johnson? It's obviously because three years in the Mississippi State strength system have put on the pounds. More, even, than the 21-year-old really wants at the spring-moment.
"I need to lose some weight, last time I stood on a scale I was 222. I came in at like 195, 198! On film I'll be like, I'm that big?!" Indeed Johnson could blend-in just fine alongside Malcolm Johnson and Brandon Hill, former fellow wide receivers now working as tight ends and h-backs and such in the Bulldog spread sets.
"But I always get like this in spring, it's just the lifting and not running as much. When the summer gets here I'll be back down."
Of course this spring's developments on offense make tight end an even more attractive position to play, as the other Johnson can attest with all his catches so far. And the matured muscle this Johnson carries will help him operate in the middle of defenses if need so be. The variety he's seen so far is encouraging, the most Johnson has seen since he came to campus in 2011.
It also reflects one benefit of having worked with so many coaches in such a short career. At least Johnson can say he's had a look at a variety of systems and styles which should serve him well the rest of his college years. "Right, it's just coming in and getting used to what they're used to."
"It's been like that since my freshman year really. It's just getting the timing right and in a groove."
Johnson isn't the only split end grooving along this spring. Jameon Lewis has the most overall snaps on his resume and is getting first shot at the open slot-receiver job, while Joe Morrow is on the other side of the field from Johnson with the first rotation. He, too, is a ‘spring star' yet to show his best stuff during the real season. Now is their time though, because there really isn't true ‘seniority' to claim in the entire group. There are redshirts and transfers and yet-to-arrive freshmen who don't defer to their elders much.
"We're real young, just trying to get in the pace of things," Johnson says. "But me, Joe, and Jameon have to be the guys to look-up to in this offense, at the receiver positions." Oh, and as a by-the-way to anyone who believes he has first claim on the quarterback's attentions, Johnson lets it be known: he and Russell have a history already. Maybe not always on the same team, true, but familiarity counts.
"Yeah, me and Tyler have been playing together for a long time. We actually played against each other in high school, we were high school rivals. So we're going to have that connection. It's good to be on the same page!"
After the spring game Johnson and team turn their page to the next short off-season. But even if the calendar just turned over to April, it really isn't that far off to June. Especially not for a fellow with first-team ambitions.
"It is my time," Johnson says. "It's going to be with me in the summer, making me work hard in the summer to be ready for the season." A season that figures to see even more passes coming to eligible receivers of all sorts…though Johnson prefers you not call him a tight end, OK?
"But that's just me playing. This offense, it's all good."