Johnson Healthy And Hungry For August Camp

It isn't exactly lemons-to-lemonade. Still Malcolm Johnson has already learned how to find the positives in setbacks. His experiences in redshirting, in reserve playing, and last year in recovering, have served to keep this gifted Bulldog both hungry, and humble. In fact…

"I'm glad you chose those two words, hungry and humble," Johnson grinned. "I like that, I'm going to have to take that!"

Johnson can take more than those suggested ‘h' words into this preseason, which begins Thursday afternoon. He carries a whole lot of hopes as well. This junior tight end/receiver is a significant part of Mississippi State's gameplanning for an expanded and efficient offense in 2013, as well as a second-time nominee for the Mackey Award.

"I'm really excited about what can happen this year," said Johnson. "The playbook will open up a little more, I hope. I'm preparing myself just to be ready so when my time is called I can produce and perform at the highest level."

Expectations for Johnson, and his cohorts, are pretty darned high. So are the demands for that matter. Coach Scott Sallach has said only quarterbacks need know more about the entire offense than those players listed as ‘tight ends'. The label means little but the role is large. These Dogs can be the classic blocker-first, eligible receiver-second types, typified now by Rufus Warren, Gus Walley, and Artimas Samuel. Or it can be converted linebacker Christian Holmes, who is as likely to line up as a H-back as with a hand on the ground.

But it is Johnson, and classmate Brandon Hill, who exemplify what this position has become for Coach Dan Mullen. They are high school wide receivers now working, well, just about anywhere from sideline to sideline. Mostly though they are either alongside one tackler or put in a slot in Mississippi State's multiple-receiver approach.

Johnson likes this best, as he admits having a "wide receiver mentality" even after two years as a tight end. "My greatest strength is trying to stretch the defense, and attacking that safety on the top. So I try to do that as well as I can." His greatest strength, perhaps; but far from the only attribute now.

It's just that the image of Johnson has already been sealed by two spectacular catches. Well, one was spectacular, the eye-popping touchdown play he made to clinch last year's Tennessee game. It was hard to say what was most amazing; the back-line leap, the one-hand grab, or getting a foot down inbounds. The other great play was made so more by how Johnson hung onto the ball after the catch, when the South Carolina tackler cartwheeled him head-first into the turf.

What ought really open eyes to Johnson's potential is the almost-18 yards he averages every catch, and that five of his 21 career grabs have produced touchdowns. It's rather remarkable considering that he isn't the fastest Bulldog route-runner, at least not compared to speedsters like Jameon Lewis and Brandon Holloway. But if Johnson's feet aren't the fleetest, he beyond question has the best hands. Hey, that's another h-word…

And so is health. Which is something the fourth-year junior is taking very close care of these days. Can we call it, well, being preventative?

"Yeah, preventative!" he grins. "Anything that feels a little funny, I'm going to get it checked-out this year, just to make sure."

He has his reasons, not least that July 2012 off-field accident—one Johnson still demurs offering any details about a year later—which left him with a torn pectoral muscle. "Yeah, we're young, we make mistakes. I was just 20, actually 19! When I first went to the trainer that Monday before I worked out, I told him my shoulder was bothering me. He set up an appointment with the doctors that afternoon and he told me it wasn't looking so good."

It didn't look good for the season in fact, yet Johnson went after the rehab process the way he goes after a high throw. Aggressively, and successfully.

"They told me how long. But I was kind of stubborn, I didn't want to hear how long it was. I was going to rehab as hard as I could and put my trust in God. My parents instilled that in me at a young age." What the '12 experience also instill was a sense of self-care, not being shy as athletes often are to report odd aches and pains.

"It always seems like it's something around this time. So I'm just trying to take it day-by-day and stay healthy. I'm staying in the training room so I can hit the season full-throttle this year."

That sounds good to an offensive squad that wants to accelerate their pace this season. Johnson is one example of how schemes are expanding to suit a greater variety of athletes, either runners or catchers or more likely both. Certainly no fan need beg the coaches to ‘get the tight end involved' in 2013. They absolutely are, says Johnson.

"I take that as a compliment, that Coach trusts us. That's the overall purpose, to give the defense a miss-match. To give the defense a disadvantage somewhere that we can find on the field. And we're going to take advantage of it and exploit it."

Johnson reports for August at around 230 now, five pounds up from last year and every ounce of it tuned over the summer. That's quite a lot more than his freshman weight of 205, but then that was when Johnson thought he would be a wide receiver. During the freshman year, Mullen suggested a move to tight end was in store.

"I really think Coach Mullen said it to me as a joke, to see how I responded. He really was testing me! But I told him I was down with anything for the team." Besides, Johnson adds, "It was my redshirt freshman year and I really didn't have any say-so!" The results since show it was the right move for all involved, especially now that Johnson has shown—himself most of all—that he can block. Really block.

"It was cool to put my hand on the ground more often and basically be in the trenches," he said. It was even cooler last October when, in his first game and in fact first play back from injury Johnson took care of a Tennessee defensive end on a stretch play. "When I got back to the sideline my teammates and coaches were giving me applause!" he said.

"That's just human nature to want to see the highlights and stuff. But we don't give enough credit to the guys up front. Because nothing gets done without the guys up front. And it took me a little to learn that, until I got down in the trenches. I was on the outside and I was one of those ‘highlight guys', but when I got on the inside it made me really appreciate what they do for the team."

But no doubt Johnson will win his share of highlights catching passes too. He even admits still having a wide receiver's mentality at tight end. Besides, "To be honest with you, I feel the ball is in the air for anyone who wants to take it." Guess who wants it most here?

State is placing plenty faith in the tight- and split- and whatever-ends. Not that Johnson says, right now anyway, he anticipates a lot more passes being thrown in 2013. No, he foresees more and bigger plays made off the passes that are thrown, the explosive plays Mullen craves. "It's really going to be who wants it, to show Coach who will be consistent and who basically wants the offense," Johnson said.

"We have a good running back and depth at running back as well, I feel like we can be balanced any way. But you just have to see really. We can open the offense up a little bit different this year. You'll probably see some new things. We lost a lot of guys last year but we've got some new guys coming up, stepping up this year. And I have trust in them, I feel like we have some new playmakers this year."

And some older ones like Johnson, who goes into this preseason hungry, humble, healthy…oh, yes, and happy.

Mississippi State opens preseason practicing tomorrow with a 5:00 session, which is open to the public as are split-squad workouts Friday and Saturday.

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