Bulldog Freshman Bucks Family Loyalties Against Auburn Saturday

Justin Johnson did not need any coach to say so. He got the preseason message without a word. “My first reps against A.J. and Ryan, I was like yeah. I will probably get on the field this year.”

He did. And he will be back on the field frequently now as Mississippi State’s newest tight end. Justin Johnson is one of four true 2015 freshmen activated, a regular in the rotation and already on the radar of Bulldog opponents.

So, how’s it been getting into immediate varsity action? “Interesting. Very interesting,” Johnson said.

“I’m kind of getting used to it now, still trying to find my rhythm and going out every day having to compete at the level I’m expected. It’s different, but it’s something to get used to.”

Johnson best get used to it. He is not just a backup to starter Gus Walley, he’s a real alternate. While taking the productive Walley off the field for any length of time is tough, having the freshman talents of Johnson does allow more than breaks to the starter. It’s a sudden situation Johnson really did not anticipate upon August arrival.

But as camp ground on… “Coach was giving me little hints, I’ve got to get in fast and step it up.” Then when Johnson realized he, the new kid, was #2 at slot tight end, well that was more than a hint.

“I was like well, that’s the second guy in line! I’ll probably get in faster than you think!” Then came a particular practice day when tight ends Coach Scott Sallach had Johnson line-up against defensive ends Jefferson and Brown. The surprise quickly turned to another sort of shock.

“I got knocked up a little bit and I still haven’t got better, they got my fingers real bent! I couldn’t blink, it was really something.”

If that was something, what about Johnson’s game debut? OK, so he went the wrong way on the first play at Southern Mississippi, and had Dak Prescott’s pass fly behind his head. Two snaps later Johnson caught another throw for first-and-goal; then Dak flipped another ball his way for a touchdown. Not just Johnson’s first TD but the first for Mississippi State’s offense, period.

“That seemed like something you’d write down in your goals. But man, it was incredible.”

Johnson hasn’t caught a ball since then but that’s more a reflection of Walley’s primacy at the position. And getting other receivers involved. And even some honest defensive respect. More opportunities are ahead.

Speaking of opportunity, by the way… Johnson finds himself at a position he personally never planned on. Never mind “since high school” folk had told him he would become a college tight end.

“No. Not at all,” Johnson said. “I was coming in as a receiver, full-fledged, that was it no if and or buts about it.” Well, then he stepped on the scales after being on campus a couple of weeks. “I put on five pounds and was like man, getting heavy…”

Not that heavy. Johnson now carries a comfortable 225 or 230 on his 6-3 frame. He says there are no plans to add more by the sophomore season. And to be honest now, tight end is not a bad place to be a Bulldog, he’s learned.

“It could be something nice. Of course I’m going against bigger guys, but hey, we’re playing in the SEC.”

That’s certainly the Saturday case as Mississippi State (2-1, 0-1 SEC) visit Auburn (2-1, 0-1) in for all practical purposes a September elimination game. The stakes are sky-high for both sides. For Hoover, Ala. High alumnus Johnson there’s a little added personal incentive.

“I had a divided house, my Dad’s side were all Auburn fans and over here all Alabama fans.” Young Johnson himself had no favorites; “I just went with the flow.” At least the full family should wear the correct colors on game day.

“Now they’ve come together and are Mississippi State fans. But they still have their orange-and-blue flag, I don’t see it but I know they have it."


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