"The first person I told was my Momma, because she wanted me to do something with my birthday. But Momma, we got camp! I had to get with it! Actually it's been like this since high school, because around this time we'd start two-a-days."
While official two-a-days for Mississippi State aren't until next week Johnson has already put in two days of preseason work. Good work too. A self-admitted old Dog in this camp, Johnson has done what a veteran should and what his coaches demand.
"Coming out this summer we worked real hard, and it's showing," he said after Friday's morning practice. He drew the first shift in this day's split-squad schedule by virtue of his #1 status at the ‘Z' receiver position. It is a stature Johnson has worked at for one redshirt and two varsity seasons, and earned with a solid spring showing.
Two sessions into preseason and he not only has the label of first-team but the production as well. Just as he expected of himself, in fact.
"Jameon (Lewis) and I, we're the old hands now and we've got to show by leadership and make plays on the field." Lewis has made a few more of those practice plays, but then as Johnson points out his classmate ought to. "X's have more one-on-one chances, they should get all the balls man! They're in the slot, that's the position."
Then again, with the way Mississippi State's passing plans appear to have expanded, a Z guy like Johnson or his counterpart split end on the other side of the slot should get their fair share of balls this season. "Z is more on the outside, the side with the tight end. And our routes are kind of primary," Johnson said. Certainly quarterback Tyler Russell hasn't ignored his Z guy this August or back in spring for that matter.
For his part Johnson intends building on a transitional 2012 season where he caught 17 passes, good for 164 yards and touchdowns against Middle Tennessee State and Alabama. The numbers weren't huge but that had more to do with Johnson, as well as Lewis and Joe Morrow and others, having to accept rotation roles behind a trio of seniors. Now that Chad Bumphis, Chris Smith, and Arceto Clark have moved on their starting jobs are open.
Johnson has early dibs on Z, from where he can use his strength and moves for tough catches. Interestingly though, he wants it known that the listed weight of 225 pounds is no longer correct. Not after a tough summer spent on campus.
"The last interview I had in spring I said I was 220. I kind of slimmed-down over summer and I weighed last night, I was 202. So I like how I feel, I might try to stay light." Light maybe but not lightweight, as the well-defined upper body proves. Johnson will hold his physical-own with any defensive back and probably a few linebackers as well.
Actually the toughest challenge for Johnson these days comes from his own teammates. Redshirt Fred Brown had an outstanding spring and is due to get varsity snaps now. A couple of talented newcomers, juco Jeremy Chappelle and freshmen B.J. Hammond and Shelby Christy, took Z snaps on opening day; while others will surely get looks there too, such as Fred Ross, De'Runnya Wilson, and more. These early practices are used to test new players for positions and Johnson has seen a lot of good stuff from the pups already. For that matter he got a read on most of their talents during informal summer drills.
"Yeah, we have got a lot of playmakers out there. We've got young guys that are making plays, stepping up." Which means Johnson himself has to take another step-up just to stay a step ahead…yet at the same time get his challengers up to college speed! It is just a price of leadership, Johnson says.
"Right now we just have to hold those young guys under our wins and show them the way. Like Chris and Bumphis did for us. I love them. We took them under our wing when they first got here in the summer and they're doing pretty well. They're all tall, got speed and got great hands. And I think they'll fit very well. They're right behind me in everything I do, so everything they ask I've got to have an answer."
Often, actually, the ‘answer' is a smile, a joke, a laugh. Johnson may have trimmed the body but he's bulked-up the humor for his fourth preseason. More simply, he is having fun at practice for a big change.
"I am! During camp I know I've got like a different mindset, that is just trying to make it fun this year." Seriously (so to speak), Johnson is making effort more exciting for himself and others. Because, he explained, once the initial rush of preseason fades this stuff can get grinding. Johnson hopes to forestall such emotional slumping.
"Instead of getting boring I just try to hype everybody up, and just get that camp mentality out of everybody's head that everybody goes through and try to make it fun. I'd say it's getting older and appreciating things. Because I just turned 22 yesterday."
Right, the birthday thing again… Johnson doesn't really rue missing-out on the normal celebrating any more. He got used to giving it up for practice, or final summer exams, whatever, many many years ago. In fact, asked when was the last time he had a for-real, for-fun birthday party, "I'd say probably around six. Chuck E. Cheese!"
Oh well, there ought to be plenty of future birthdays for partying after the football career ends, hopefully not for many years of course. And boy, will he make the first one worth it.
"I know, I've been waiting a long time. I just hope it helps out in the long run."